The DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls will attract a lot of the focus as they square off in a Vodacom United Rugby Championship quarterfinal on Saturday but the reality of what will be required for there to be a South African winner this year was struck home at the weekend.
With Leinster in such imperious form in this season’s edition of a competition that includes teams from Ireland, South Africa, Scotland, Italy and Wales, it has always seemed likely that the only trophy this country will see will be the Shield that the Stormers held up in Stellenbosch a week ago after convincingly proving themselves top of the class locally.
The Cell C Sharks have a chance this week to change that outlook, but how much chance do they really have given Leinster’s formidable form in dispatching Toulouse in the Heineken Champions Cup semifinal at Aviva Stadium?
Perhaps the hangover of so comprehensively outplaying the team that has won the most Champion Cups will count in the Sharks’ favour, but on the evidence of what they produced against a team that put 50 points past the Sharks three weeks ago, a repeat of last year’s shock semifinal, where the Bulls pulled off an upset at the RDS Arena, isn’t going to happen.
The Sharks do have a lot to play for as they head to Dublin. They have a lifeline to make it into next season’s Champions Cup if they win the URC. So they are effectively playing for their Champions Cup status. But that motivation didn’t help them at home against Munster, so it is unlikely to help them away against a Leinster team that even without Jonny Sexton, James Lowe and a few others just looked on a different level.
IT SHOULD BE A GREAT FINAL
LaRochelle were very good in comprehensively outplaying Exeter Chiefs, who comfortably won their quarterfinal against the Stormers at Sandy Park three weeks ago, thus setting up what should be an enthralling rematch of last year’s decider in Marseille. In that game, Leinster led most of the way and looked on the way to their fifth Champions Cup trophy only for the French team to come back at them and win it at the death.
This year’s final though will be played in Dublin, which gives the Irish side the advantage LaRochelle had last year. Leinster certainly won’t lack for motivation as they seek revenge for what happened in the 2021/22 final and neither will Ronan O’Gara’s LaRochelle, who are bidding for a hattrick of titles.
LOCAL SIDES LACK CROSS-POLLINATION OF OVERSEAS TEAMS
Mention of O’Gara cues one of the areas where the South African teams may have ground to make up on the teams that were so good in the semifinal round - the cross-pollination of ideas that comes with having coaches and players from outside of your country as part of the group.
The Irishman has done an amazing job with LaRochelle and his smart brain is very much what stands in the way of his countrymen winning the final on 20 May. Former All Black Jerome Kaino was in the Toulouse dug-out as an assistant coach the day before, and of course Stuart Lancaster, the former England coach, is part of the Leinster group and will be replaced next season by current Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber.
When you look at the key players across the weekend, both in the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup, overseas players, such as scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow and lock forward Will Skelton for LaRochelle, not to mention the South African wingers Raymond Rhule and Dillyn Leyds, both of whom were Stormers a few years back, were influential.
The Sharks, who are currently the local franchise with the most financial muscle, do have a few overseas coaches and overseas players in their group, and John Plumtree, a New Zealander who has coached everywhere, including at the Sharks before, will be taking over there on 1 July.
But generally the local franchises don’t have the financial clout to attract overseas coaches and players to bring the different ideas that should contribute to a greater canvas when it comes to tactical acumen.
BUDGETS THE MAIN DISADVANTAGE
Not that the South African franchises are doing badly when it comes to coaches - the Bulls’ Jake White is a World Cup winner, the Stormers’ John Dobson is the most innovative local coach and when Plumtree arrives the Sharks will have the services of someone who has been an assistant coach at the All Blacks and Ireland and has been part of a Super Rugby winning group at the Hurricanes.
It is the finances and therefore budgets that they work with that put them at a disadvantage in comparison to the teams challenging for Champions Cup honours. One thing that definitely needs to go if the South African sides are ever going to compete is the restrictive salary caps that the franchises find themselves having to find clever ways of working around.
What is crystal clear though after watching the two Champions Cup games at the weekend is that the South African franchises need to stop focusing on their rivalries with each other and start paying more attention to measuring themselves against the likes of Leinster, LaRochelle and Toulouse.
There was an all South African final in the URC last year that provided a good indicator of the growth there had been since the previous season, when the British and Irish Lions embarrassed all the local teams in their tour games. However, the balancing act required to compete across two fronts has left the South African challenge looking exposed this year and a meaningful trophy looks unlikely.
Certainly a lot of work needs to be done before a local team challenges for Europe’s main prize and the South African franchise that comes closest to having the number of marquee players to rival the number of international stars in the top teams, the Sharks, are unlikely to even be in the competition next year.
Leinster, even without a clutch of injured players, still had Irish first choice players across the board, with 14 internationally capped players in the starting team. Toulouse had 12. That’s the kind of firepower that the local franchises need to match if they hope to win the Champions Cup but for that you need money. And lots of it.
Heineken Champions Cup semifinal results
Leinster 41 Toulouse 22
Stade Rochelais 47 Exeter Chiefs 28
Final: Leinster v Stade Rochelais - Aviva Stadium, 20 May, 16.45
Challenge Cup results
Scarlets 17 Glasgow Warriors 35
Toulon 23 Benetton 0
Challenge Cup final: Glasgow Warriors v Toulon - Aviva Stadium, 19 May, 21.00)