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FEATURE 'If the South Africans are in, they need to be all in'

'If the South Africans are in, they need to be all in'
3 months ago

There is a sense with the South Africans in European competition after the weekend of a guest being handed a free ticket to the art gallery only to turn up and throw a pot of paint over the prize exhibit.

The decision by the Bulls to put out a shadow side at Northampton for a Champions Cup quarter-final felt like an act of rugby vandalism.

The European knockout stages have produced some of the great occasions of the professional era. High-wire cross-continental classics that could have gone any which way. Epics of the ovoid genre.

The second-string Bulls were blown away by Northampton Saints in Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final (Photo by PA)

Yet from the moment Jake White named his Bulls team any prospect of the clash between the top side in England and the top side in South Africa joining the classics evaporated. Jeopardy left the building.

Northampton’s fans did not care, of course. They loved seeing the scintillating Saints rack up 59 points at Franklin’s Gardens and coast through to the semi-final. But for the armchair viewer and the Champions Cup itself White’s call to leave 11 Springboks back at home was bitterly disappointing.

Injuries may have played a part – we will find out exactly how much when the Bulls director of rugby reveals his team to play Munster in the URC on home soil this weekend – but there was clearly a calculation made.

It is legitimate to ask what is the point of having them in the Champions Cup if they are only going to demean it when it comes to the showpiece games.

Central to it was the reasoning the Champions Cup was not the Bulls’ priority.

South Africa is a magnificent rugby nation, one which has spawned the back-to-back world champions and one whose playing diaspora enriches so many countries around the world.

But it is legitimate to ask what is the point of having them in the Champions Cup if they are only going to demean it when it comes to the showpiece games.

Imagine if the same thing had happened in football’s Champions League this week.

Had Arsenal sent a B team to Bayern Munich because Mikel Arteta thought his side might not win in Germany and wanted to preserve his primary resources for the Premier League title run-in, there would have been merry hell. Likewise if Pep Guardiola had done the same against Real Madrid.

The Bulls might still not have won at Northampton even with the A-listers but White should have given it a go at least.

Sharks
Werner Kok’s Springbok-laden Sharks beat Edinburgh in Durban to reach the Challenge Cup semi-finals, but they cannot reach the URC play-offs (Photo Steve Haag Sports/Gallo Images)

The introduction of South African teams was always sold as a route to monetise European competition but the irony is after last weekend it might end up impoverishing it.

Broadcasters TNT have still not re-signed to screen the Champions Cup next season.

When they eventually do, the sum of money EPCR accept from them will quite likely reflect the fact a prime-time Saturday evening showdown was rendered a one-sided mismatch because of the selection white flag raised by the Bulls. Why would any broadcaster want to pay top dollar for second tier?

Rugby, with its demands, is a game of personnel rotation through the season and clubs have put out weakened teams many times before in the tournament but only ever for the pool stage.

The knockout stages, where everything is on the line, should always showcase the best against the best.

After swapping the time zone nightmare of Super Rugby for what was supposedly a more manageable alternative, the South Africans still feel like an artificial add-on to the Champions Cup.

If the South Africans aren’t going to play ball because of the logistics of a draw they do not fancy then EPCR has a serious problem.

It was always a contentious decision to allow the franchises in. If they are only going to offer a ghostly presence then the argument for exorcism will grow stronger.

Two seasons in, after swapping the time zone nightmare of Super Rugby for what was supposedly a more manageable alternative, the South Africans still feel like an artificial add-on to the Champions Cup.

The buy-in domestically has been patchy. The 7,500 crowd for the Bulls’ last-16 tie against Lyon in Pretoria – another trans-continental blowout the previous week only with the boot on the other foot – was a sorry sight at Loftus Versfeld. There were a promising 27,660 at the 55,000-capacity DHL Stadium in Cape Town for the Stormers’ game against last season’s winners La Rochelle the same weekend, however.

The fact is, for many, the Currie Cup, an intrinsic part of South African rugby’s DNA, is viewed much more fondly than this lukewarm long-distance love affair.

Of course new ventures like this need time to bed in. Eight years on from the Southern Kings and the Cheetahs’ pioneering entry into the Pro12, that experiment can be judged a success. South Africa’s addition to what is now the URC has added depth to the competition.

A level up, maybe this can work too but for it to do so there need to be changes.

South Africa need a helping hand with the scheduling. An end to the back-to-back scheduling of the round of 16 and the quarter-final would be beneficial. But most importantly there has to be a change of mindset.

Manie Libbok, Stormers
The Stormers beat the Bulls to win the inaugural URC back in 2022 (Photo by Rodger Bosch /Getty Images)

No one is pretending it is straightforward travelling 8,000 miles to play on another continent in an alternative hemisphere but plate tectonics are not going to bring the continents much closer in the short term.

A knockout tie in Europe cannot bring with it the attitude that defeat is inevitable.

Perhaps the fate which befell a full-strength Stormers side last season when they went down 42-17 to Exeter in the quarter-final played on White’s mind with the side he fielded. But as La Rochelle proved in winning in Cape Town this season, a cross-continental away assignment need not spell the end of days.

The South Africans only have to look back to the pool stage when the Stormers won at Stade Francais and the Bulls at Bristol to know what is possible.

The Bulls and the Lions have both also won twice on the road in Europe in the URC this season.

With finite playing resources and an 11-month season, maybe it has to be a question of targeting tournaments but when a franchise is more committed to URC success than it is to the Champions Cup it needs its head wobbling.

In the northern hemisphere, even allowing for the glitz of the Top 14, it is European competition where a good side becomes great.

With all due deference to the URC, the Stormers’ title in 2022 was of only passing note. The day they go on to lift the Champions Cup is the day they have really arrived as a force on the distant continent.

Perhaps it is because a South African franchise has yet to go beyond the last eight that the significance has not registered fully. But they are never going to do so as long as they choose the Bulls route.

If South Africa are going to be in, they need to be all in.

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Comments

50 Comments
J
John 92 days ago

Speaking of scheduling, why can’t the SA teams play both away pool games and both home games back to back? Say, two home in December and two away in January. That will save a lot of travelling. It shouldn’t be that hard to arrange.

A
Andrew 94 days ago

Lets compare apples with apples. Lyon sent weak team the week before, but nobody raised an eyebrow. Give the South African teams a few years to build their depth, then you will be moaning that the teams are too strong.

C
Conrad 95 days ago

Exeter were thumped by 38 points. And they only had to hop on a train.

J
Jon 95 days ago

What was the excuse for the other knockout blowouts then? Does the result not prove the Saints were just so much better? Wise call to put your eggs in one basket when you’ve got 2 comps simultaneously finishing.

D
Deon 95 days ago

Oh wow… “But as La Rochelle proved in winning in Cape Town this season, a cross-continental away assignment need not spell the end of days.”
La Rochelle actually proved quite the opposite. After traveling to Cape town and back they (back-to-back and current champs) got mercilessly thumped the next week. If travel is not the reason, why else would a full-strength powerhouse like La Rochelle get dumped on their @r$e$ one week later?

R
Robbie 96 days ago

Bulls disrespected the Northampton supporters and the competition. Decide quickly, fully in or out.

A
Awie 96 days ago

Bulls fan here, and agree 100% with the conclusion (and little else) of this article. SA sides should absolutely f-off from the champs cup until we get fair scheduling, equal support for travel arrangements and home semis. You know, like all the european teams get.

T
Turkish 96 days ago

Pot Kettle, the English and French teams have done it for years.

W
Warren 97 days ago

Forgive my ignorance, I might not fully understand so would appreciate clarification: Didn’t the Bulls have to fly with three different carriers, paid for by the South African Rugby Union, whilst Edinburgh got a chartered flight sponsored by EPCR?

Also, as far as I understand it South African teams don’t yet share in the revenue from the competition and are not allowed to host Semi-finals or Finals at home. Surely if everyone wants South Africans to “take the competition seriously” then they must make South Africans feel welcome, allow them to share in the revenue, and give them the same levels of access as the teams from the other countries.

Just a reminder that South Africa has a large and passionate Rugby audience. Just by virtue of our teams being a part of these competitions means that more of us are likely to watch the knockout games, even if our teams haven’t qualified. It would be silly to alienate such a large audience by making them feel unwelcome.

B
Bull Shark 97 days ago

First of all. This guy is very much behind the curve. All the bleating, whingeing, whining and moaning took place days ago already. Not adding anything to the topic other than more bleating, whingeing, whining and moaning. 🍼

Second of all, not one mention of the fact that South African teams can’t get home semi finals or finals. The tournament was undermined and devalued by the administrators. 🤡

Thirdly, football teams often have to juggle selections in mid week games, premier games, champions league games etc. and will from time to time prioritize certain titles over others. 🐒

And lastly FEK Neil, and anyone else for that matter, for insisting on telling teams how to manage themselves. If they make what is largely a business decision that suits them and doesn’t suit you - tough shite. 💩

It’s not rocket science as to why the Bulls did what they did. If this guy is too slow to figure it out (and is deliberately not mentioning one of the key reasons why) then he isn’t a journalist. He should join the rest of us pundit plebs in comments section. 🥴

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