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The proposed URC rethink that should ease South African frustrations

By RugbyPass
The Sharks lost out last weekend at Leinster (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

URC is set to return to a meritocracy-based system regarding qualification for the Heineken Champions Cup – while better travel arrangements are on the cards for South African sides as the competition looks to improve from the opening two seasons.


CEO Martin Anayi explained there was a proposal, which needs unanimous approval from all 16 URC clubs, that the eight Champions Cup qualification spots should go back to a meritocracy system rather than the shield format that has been in operation in the first two years of the revamped tournament’s existence.

This season, the quarter-final Cell C Sharks missed out on Champions Cup qualifying even though they finished eighth because the competition structure meant that a Welsh team – Cardiff who finished in 10th place – had to be included as they won the Welsh shield awarded to the highest-finishing team from that country in the URC.

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Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff on Connacht’s threats
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Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff on Connacht’s threats

Now, if the clubs agree, a return to meritocracy-based Champions Cup qualification is on the cards. “That’s most likely,” admitted Anayi. “The way it works now is we take the four geographical shield winners and the next four highest placed sides in the league and we did that because we wanted a broad range of teams in the Champions Cup.

“We also said there is a quite vocal objection to that within some of our stakeholder groups who didn’t want that, but they said they would go with that for a two-year period and then we would review this summer.”

Anayi also added that the current format of the highest-ranked side hosting the URC final would continue and the ‘destination final’ idea won’t be rekindled. “We moved away from the ‘destination final’ when the South African teams came in, largely because obviously you could have two South African teams in a European ‘destination final’ and that might be tricky.

“In year one, we obviously had with Stormers versus Bulls, so we have moved away to a highest-ranked team route. That is why this weekend is really interesting because if Leinster win, they have got a final in the Aviva Stadium. If Munster win and Stormers win, then they are down in Cape Town. That is why we have gone that route and that is really, really tricky for us – but actually this year there is an extra gap of a week between the Champions Cup final in Dublin.”


When it comes to the travel concerns that have dogged South African teams this season, there were plans to address this – including making the tours longer to ensure fewer flights over the course of the season.

Anayi, though, highlighted that since the plans for South Africa inclusion were drawn up, the price of an average flight ticket had gone up 35 per cent. The cost of the European teams travelling to South Africa is covered by the URC, while the South African Rugby Union covers the cost of their teams’ travel.

“That inflation has been quite difficult,” he explained about the behind-the-scenes logistics. “There is a hell of a lot more we need to do. It [the planned changes] will result in only two tours rather than three or four tours. To reduce flights, it would add another match to the tour. When it’s a four-match tour, teams can settle into a location and get integrated into their hotel.”

Charter flights were also an option, but Anayi said URC were “trying to make it more direct and at convenient times, while expanding the number of business class seats available. There is a very low number of business class seats available on those routes and there is an over-subscription.”


The URC boss added that the likely start date of next season’s competition would be on the weekend of October 20-22, the same weekend as the Rugby World Cup semi-finals in France.


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