THIS weekend marks another significant step to South Africa’s full integration into northern hemisphere rugby with participation in the Heineken European Champions Cup for its three leading teams.
All that remains is for the Springboks to be included in an expanded Six Nations for South Africa to be a fully-fledged northern hemisphere rugby nation, residing on the southern tip of Africa. And that reality is close. But first things first – the European Champions and also the Challenge Cups await.
The Stormers, Bulls and Sharks are not unfamiliar with northern hemisphere teams thanks to their United Rugby Championship (URC) participation. But this is a new frontier altogether and one that South Africa’s leading clubs coveted once it was known the move north was irreversible.
When the South African Rugby Union (Saru) saw the opportunity to file for divorce from Sanzaar when New Zealand Rugby (NZR) unilaterally pulled out of the alliance during the height of Covid in mid-20, the carrot at the end of the stick was European qualification.
It took some time for France and English representatives in the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) to accept the inevitable inclusion of teams from South Africa. And what was already the strongest and most prestigious club title in world rugby, is now that little bit better with South Africa’s finest in it.
“Ever since we’ve made the decision to align with the Northern Hemisphere, our aim has been to play in the EPCR competitions,” Saru CEO Jurie Roux said. “As we’ve seen during the inaugural season of the URC, the rugby is of the highest standard and our top players definitely benefited from this move.
“We now have an opportunity to also start rubbing shoulders with the top clubs from England and France in two other competitions which have caught the imagination of rugby supporters around the globe for more than two decades.”
But it comes with different challenges for the teams from the Republic. After a positive and successful inclusion in the URC, which saw the Stormers and Bulls contest the inaugural final earlier this year, Europe is another step up.
“I think everyone (in South Africa) is a little naive, both from a supporter point of view and a young player point of view,” coach Jake White said as a prelude to the Bulls opening encounter against Lyon at Loftus on Saturday.
“We will be coming up against teams boasting several Test internationals, both in the starting team and on the bench. Remember most of the European teams don’t just draw from the player pool base in their country, they have South Africans, Kiwis, Aussies, Argentinians and players from the Pacific islands.
“I have experienced this competition before when coaching Montpellier, and whether it is the Champions Cup or the Challenge Cup it is incredibly tough.
“Generally, the depth of those teams is much stronger than we have gotten used to in the URC and which we have in our systems in South Africa. I’ve tried very hard over the last few weeks to explain to the guys in our squad just how good these teams are.
“The packs weigh a thousand kilograms, they’ve got brilliant international-class backlines. I think we are in for a bit of a wake-up call next weekend. Once we have seen the games on TV everyone will understand the enormity of the challenge facing our teams.”
Stormers coach John Dobson, who oversaw a near-miraculous URC title run considering the Stormers were, and remain, under Saru’s administration because of poor boardroom governance, left assistant Dawie Snyman to do the talking this week.
The Stormers have some returning Springboks in prop Steven Kitshoff, flank/hooker Deon Fourie and utility back Damian Willemse. But playing against three-time champions Clermont, in the heartland of French rugby, on an icy December day, will be a new challenge. A week later the Stormers will host London Irish in Cape Town in what could be 30 degree heat, which all adds to the unique challenges of the new structure.
Snyman, one of the unsung brains behind the Stormers success said that the team is capable of adapting its high-octane approach in adverse conditions. But their DNA will always be to look for scoring opportunities.
“This will be the first time a lot of people will be watching us, and for the French people watching the Stormers for the first time we want to show them what we are about and lay down a marker,” Snyman said.
“We know we are up against formidable opponents at a difficult venue for visiting teams, but this is our first time here and hopefully we will learn from the experience.”
The Sharks will have to rely on experienced players rather than experienced coaches as they head into their European adventure against Harlequins at King’s Park on Saturday. Coach Sean Everitt was axed 10 days ago and former Blitzbok head coach Neil Powell is operating in a caretaker role. He is the Sharks’ director of rugby, but the search for a permanent coach is still ongoing.
The colossal presence of Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi is a boost for a Sharks team battling for form and more crucially, a discernible identity. Powell is unlikely to have ironed out all the kinks before this weekend but having some top players back in the mix will help. Durban is also hot and humid at this time of year, which could give the home side a small edge too.
“We’re really excited to have all the experienced players back, but it’s all about getting on the same page mentally because it’s going to take a squad effort to win this competition,” prop Ox Nche, back from Bok duty, said.
“We also have guys in the team who are keen, they want to play and make a name for themselves, so we’re looking forward to the challenge.” And a challenge it will be – for both South African teams and their opponents.