Lions and Stormers are saving themselves for home
Excessive travel times to reach destinations have helped define the mix of touring squads
Excessive travel times to reach cross-continental destinations have helped shape how teams assemble their touring squads in European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) and the United Rugby Championship (URC).
In many cases, connecting flights on detour routes through the Arabian Gulf and East Africa significantly add to travel times.
When teams have back-to-back matches on either side of the equator, they are more likely to dispatch second-string personnel for their away match and place more emphasis on their home fixtures.
That is certainly the rationale adopted by the Stormers and the Lions as they go into Champions Cup and Challenge Cup combat, respectively, on Sunday. The Stormers face a taxing trip to Welford Road to face Leicester Tigers, while the Lions are off to Perpignan near the southern tip of France.
The Stormers have a significant date at home with La Rochelle next Saturday, while the Lions will return for a clash against Newcastle Falcons at Ellis Park. In both cases they await a six-day turnaround between matches.
“We learnt from last season’s Champions Cup — and I am talking under correction — but 15 of the 16 Champions Cup and Challenge Cup quarterfinal matches were won by the home team,” said Stormers coach John Dobson, who referred to their match against back-to-back champions La Rochelle as “massive”.
“If you get a point on the road, that is golden. You simply can’t [afford to] lose at home. If that happens, you have to go somewhere crazy to get a point.”
Having won the inaugural URC, it is the Stormers’ ambition with lay their hands on the Champions Cup. To meet that objective, winning on home soil is imperative.
They will also be keen to put their best foot forward on the newly relayed hybrid surface at Cape Town Stadium when they play La Rochelle.
But the Stormers clearly have measured expectations for their trip to Leicester Tigers, who are also back-to-back champions, though that was in 2001 and 2002.
“Does it make sense to send a Damian Willemse or a Deon Fourie via Mogadishu to Leicester on a Sunday and return for a six-day turnaround?” the coach asked rhetorically.
“La Rochelle is our focus. Leicester, if we can get a point with a mixture of players, that is our approach,” explained Dobson.
The Lions also weighed up the pros and cons of changing their squad and arrived at a similar conclusion. Scrum coach Julian Redelinghuys explained what awaits them.
“If you look at our travel, we leave for France on Wednesday evening, arrive on Thursday afternoon, then we still have a bus,” Redelinghuys said about the drive of two-and-a-bit hours across the border ride from Barcelona and Perpignan.
“We are only flying home on Monday evening and then arrive here late on Tuesday afternoon.
“To be able to travel with one squad, or say the same 23 for both games, only arrive home on Tuesday and have to perform on Saturday, that’s really tough. That’s why you will see the teams looking to manage the squad. It also helps with building squad depth and rewarding the guys who have been working really hard, while the other guys were playing.”
Redelinghuys believes it is a practice SA teams will increasingly adopt.
What makes the travel more taxing is the limited number of business class seats available on routes through the Arabian Gulf.
Last September Qatar Airways announced a partnership that makes it the preferred carrier for SA teams in the URC and European competitions. Teams, however, routinely occupy economy class seats and fellow passengers on a return flight to SA were last season greeted by the unedifying sight of Lions’ locks squeezed into the tight “cattle class” configuration.
“I must say, I’m really short, so economy class is like business class to me anyway,” Redelinghuys said about his playing days in Super Rugby.
“What we were used to in Super Rugby, we were travelling through either Sydney or it was straight flights and we all had business class. A few junior guys sat in economy, or premier economy.
“Now we all have connecting flights through Qatar or Dubai, but we aren’t in the game of complaining. That’s the cards we’ve been dealt and we will take it on the chin.
“The really important thing is our recovery after travelling,” the former Bok prop said. “That’s where I think we have made a massive step up. Our travel time is around 23 hours, but the big thing for us is to recover well to play on the weekend.”
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