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The last week of the SA participation in the Champions Cup didn’t go off too well — and that’s not just a reference to the Bulls coming such a distant second on the field in their quarterfinal, because that was largely expected given the circumstances.

Yes, the local representation in the two European competitions is being extended for at least one more round than it was in 2023 by the Sharks, who have made the semifinal round of the Challenge Cup. But while Durban fans will be excited about the prospect of their team winning silverware, we do need to be realistic.

The Challenge Cup is a secondary competition for the teams that can’t make it into the Champions Cup.

Victor Matfield summed it up in his role as a SuperSport analyst after the Sharks beat Edinburgh when, while praising the Sharks for finding some winning momentum, he pointed out that you do need to look at the quality of the competition. The teams left in the competition don’t feature at the top table of European rugby.

The team the Bulls shipped over 50 points to at the weekend, the Northampton Saints, is clearly worthy of a place at the top table. And another English club, Harlequins, joined them in the last four with an epic win over Bordeaux. Harlequins said beforehand they would “throw the bat at it”, and they did.

The young Bulls team that lost to the Saints also threw their bat, but given the wholesale changes to the side that won the round of 16 tie against Lyon, and the fact many of the distinctly second-string side that played at Franklin Gardens are coming back from injury and lack game fitness, the end result, a 59-22 defeat, was expected.

Bulls coach Jake White didn’t exactly throw his bat at the game, but that he didn’t is entirely understandable. Indeed, there has been a lot of hypocrisy, from in particular the English media, in the reaction to the Bulls going understrength to the game. The Pretoria franchise got to the quarterfinal round by smashing a Lyon team that was understrength for their round of 16 tie.

There were many other occasions during the Champions Cup where sides went understrength. Playing in two competitions is challenging, and it is not just the South Africans, because of the long travel distances involved, who find it such. Harlequins were magnificent against Bordeaux but even they weren’t at full strength, with England players Danny Care and Joe Marler, among others, being rested presumably for the return of the Gallagher Premiership next week.


Harlequins never had to travel the distance the Bulls did. Had they been going to Cape Town or Pretoria, where overseas teams were winless before last week’s narrow squeak by La Rochelle over the Stormers, they’d probably have rested more players for the quarterfinal than they did.

Leinster, who were imperious in dispatching La Rochelle, are heading to SA this week to play two United Rugby Championship games. If they arrive here with a full strength squad, it will be the first time we’ve seen their top team. Are there ever any investigations into Leinster’s selection policy?

But the hypocrisy shouldn’t obscure the fact the overseas critics and fans do have a point when they react sarcastically to complaints about travel in a competition many of them don’t think SA should be a part of. The European Cup is a competition which traditionally has been treated by fans as an opportunity to travel to support their teams.

The games on television this weekend were all played in vibrant, colourful atmospheres with a noticeably large contingent of visiting fans at the games. But the distances involved make it hard to replicate that in SA.

Yet, at the same time, overseas critics were missing White’s point when he complained about his team’s travel obstacle. He wasn’t complaining about competition as such, he was making the point that a professional sports team should not be flying to such a major event in eight different aircraft, as was the initial plan before SA Rugby jumped in and paid over R4m for direct flights.

Given the struggle they had to get into the Champions Cup in the first place, it is understandable why SA Rugby might want to tip toe around the competition organisers. But White’s main point is hard to disagree with — if we are going to be part of the Champions Cup, we must give it our best shot and our best chance of winning it. Otherwise why bother?

If the SA participation in the elite competition is to be sustained the local teams do need to start going deep into the playoffs, where their presence can’t be ignored.

To do that, given the amount and frequency of the travel, the routing to away games needs to be the most direct route possible. If White was saying “let’s do it properly or don’t take part”, his line is not wrong.

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