Champions Cup review: It was a statement weekend for SA teams
The first round of the two European competitions gave plenty of indication that the South African sides have learned from what was mostly a mediocre first foray into the Investec Champions Cup and the secondary Challenge Cup last season.
There were four wins in five games for local sides, but of course it is the Champions Cup that should attract most attention as that the is the competition regarded by so many players as the pinnacle of club or provincial rugby. The Vodacom Bulls bossed the England champions, Saracens, for most of the game, and when you look at their end winning margin of 11 points you have to factor in that they crossed the line another three times without being rewarded.
The Bulls’ arch-rivals from Cape Town, the DHL Stormers, were the only South African team to lose this weekend but they arguably made as big if not even bigger statement than the Bulls did given that the team John Dobson took to Leicester Tigers’ home ground of Welford Road was definitely a second string side.
With champions LaRochelle coming to DHL Stadium this weekend for a game that is given extra import by the fact that it will be the christening of the new hybrid pitch that saw its first rugby action in the Cape Town Sevens, Dobson felt he had little choice given the six day turnaround and the travel obstacles but to leave all his first choice players at home.
STORMERS HAD NO DEFINITE FIRST CHOICE PLAYERS
With the exception of maybe Ben Loader and possibly the other wing, Courtnall Skosan, there were no Stormers players who were part of the tenacious performance that drew such respect from the Leicester crowd as well as their opponents that can realistically expect to play against LaRochelle. At least not in the starting team.
Dobson, slightly embarrassed at having to name a team without its acknowledged star players because he quite rightly views it as not good for the competition, said on the eve of the game that he hoped his team would scrap and maybe return with a bonus point. But his side, led by veteran Brok Harris, made such a fist of it that the Stormers coach was rightly gutted at the end that his team didn’t win.
With four minutes to go when they were trailing by four points and had a penalty on the Tigers line, they had a very good chance of winning. Dobson admitted afterwards that although the Stormers’ lineout had been the one area of their game that had malfunctioned, it was probably wrong to have opted for the scrum rather than set up a lineout.
There again, he and most pundits didn’t agree with the referee’s decision to penalise the Stormers, which got the Tigers off the hook (the yellow card to prop Lee-Marvin Mazibuko at a critical stage of the game was debatable too).
With Clayton Blommetjies then making the cardinal error of kicking too long with less than two minutes to go, meaning the scrum had to be taken where the ball was kicked, it gave Leicester the field position from which they scored the last gasp try that denied the Stormers what would have at least been a well deserved bonus point.
The point though is that the team the Stormers were playing against was a fully loaded Leicester side, with two World Cup winning Springboks in Jasper Wiese and man of the match Handre Pollard, Pumas hooker Julian Montoya plus several England internationals such as Dan Coles, Ben Youngs and Freddy Steward.
DEBUTANT MATTHEE A STAND OUT
Some of those players were made to look ordinary by the tactical play of a team that featured a few debutants to Champions Cup rugby and even debutants to the Stormers. The 23-year-old flyhalf Jurie Matthee turned in a calm and measured display that would surely have earned him the man of the match award had the Stormers won, and yet it was the first time he’d ever pulled on the Stormers jersey.
According to Dobson, Matthee and Pollard, both old boys of the same school in the Western Cape, were involved in a long conversation afterwards, with Pollard having massive respect for what Matthee produced on the day. That alone justified Matthee’s inclusion, and several other players, such as impressive No8 Keke Morabe, who also made his Champions Cup debut at one of the shrines of club rugby, would have learned from the experience.
Not picking up a point though does intensify the Stormers’ need to win when they field their full strength side on Saturday against a LaRochelle team that will be smarting after their loss at home to Leinster on Sunday. It was the French team’s first loss in the competition in 16 games, quite some record, and they certainly won’t be an easy side for the Stormers to beat, even in Cape Town.
BULLS SHOWED THE WAY AT LOFTUS
The Bulls did show though that it can be done, that the South African teams can live with the big guns, by comfortably seeing off the challenge of a Saracens side that was loaded with England internationals and led by England’s World Cup captain, Owen Farrell.
The Bulls’ tempo is a massive weapon for them at altitude, and although the game was played at night, when the conditions are less difficult for visiting teams, Saracens were floundering in the face of the multiple threats the Bulls now have after Jake White’s offseason acquisitions.
The Bulls pack pretty much destroyed Saracens in the scrums in the first half, while the likes of the highly impressive newcomer Cameron Hanekom at No8 and lock Janko Swanepoel excelled in what for them would have been their first games against highly rated international players in Billy Vunipola and Marot Itoje respectively.
The former was red carded in the game for a wild dive into a loose scrum but the Bulls were winning more comfortably before he was removed from the game than once he’d left, with the card, as it so often does, appearing to galvanise the opposition. Itoje too spent some time off the field after being yellow carded.
Saracens were pressing towards the end and did well to deny the Bulls what for much of the way looked like an almost certain four try bonus point, but the hosts were comfortable victors and can feel they made a massive statement. With the big Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby against the Stormers now less than two weeks away, they are likely to send a second string team to Lyon this weekend, but they can do that with some degree of comfort now that they have a win under their belt.
CHEETAHS AND LIONS SHONE BRIGHTLY
When it comes to the Challenge Cup, the trend of teams going understrength should temper the euphoria of Hollywoodbets Sharks fans following their team’s easy win over Pau, who fielded something like five under-19 players in their unit and were very understrength at Hollywoodbets Kings Park.
However, a win is a win, as the old saying goes, and the ease with which they managed it once they got on top, and the way they handled the conditions in particular, should give the Sharks players some confidence.
They might need that as they head to Bloemfontein this coming weekend to play a Toyota Cheetahs team that joined the SA statement making by comfortably beating Zebre on their home field in Parma. Given that the Cheetahs are the fifth ranked local side, and that Zebre have been difficult opponents in the URC this year, and beat the Sharks in Parma not that long ago, the Cheetahs’ performance said something about the depth available to this country.
Ditto the Emirates Lions, who went to Perpignan, where admittedly the hosts were also apparently very under-strength, and won comfortably with a completely changed up team. In the instances where sides were under-strength and did well, meaning the Lions and the Stormers, the opening round was an important depth building exercise.
And World Cup winning flyhalf Pollard readily acknowledged the depth in his homeland in his television interview after his team squeaked home against the second string Stormers.
“The Stormers showed that there is a lot of depth in SA rugby. It was really good from them, they surprised with their physicality in the first first half, and they deserve a lot of credit. It was a quite unbelievable performance from them,” said Pollard.
INVESTEC CHAMPIONSHIP CUP FIRST ROUND RESULTS
Glasgow Warriors 19 Northampton Saints 28
Connacht 5 Bordeaux Begles 41
Toulon 18 Exeter Chiefs 19
Bath 37 Ulster 14
Toulouse 52 Cardiff 7
Vodacom Bulls 27 Saracens 16
Munster 17 Bayonne 17
Bristol 36 Lyon 34
Sale Sharks 28 Stade Francais 5
LaRochelle 9 Leinster 16
Leicester Tigers 35 DHL Stormers 26
Racing 92 28 Harlequins 31
Investec Challenge Cup results
Newcastle 19 Montpellier 24
Perpignan 12 Emirates Lions 28
Dragons 24 Oyonnax 7
Ospreys 43 Benetton 34
Castres 34 Scarlets 16
Hollywoodbets Sharks 45 Pau 5
Black Lion 10 Gloucester 15
Zebre 15 Toyota Cheetahs 33
Clermont Auvergne 31 Edinburgh 18