TALKING POINT: SA Franchises slowly learning the art of the Champions Cup deal

rugby28 May 2024 04:45| © SuperSport
By:Brenden Nel
article image
Aphelele Fassi © Getty Images

Even though it was epic in its own right, few rugby purists will want to compare the Hollywoodbets Sharks EPCR Challenge Cup victory on Friday night over Gloucester to win their first silverware in ages, to the epic Investec Champions Cup final that took place on Saturday.

To be honest, it isn’t even a comparison. The heavyweight battle that played itself out in London on Saturday was nothing short of rugby’s crescendo, a fitting battle of some of the world’s biggest stars in (and close your ears Super Rugby fans) possibly the world’s biggest club/franchise competition.

The quality of play was astounding. The to and fro slugfest highlighting some of the best rugby has to offer and precisely why SA Rugby took the unique step to play in Europe.

Of course, that isn’t the Sharks fault, and for all the reminders on social media that their victory was in the second tier competition, what else should they have done?

The Sharks have perennially been named as the best team never to have won Super Rugby, having appeared in a few finals, but always been the bridesmaid.

So the chance of silverware, in particular the silverware that looks very much like the old Super Rugby trophy was celebrated as if it was the World Cup.

And why not? After the season they have had, John Plumtree’s men deserve every chance they can get to smile, and the added bonus of a spot in next year’s Champions’ Cup, which they failed to qualify for via the route of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, made it all the more satisfying.

Yet, even the Sharks, after the champagne died down and the selfies subsided, will tell you it is the Champions’ Cup they want to win.


There have been many debates since South Africa’s entry last year into the EPCR competitions, and a number of prominent ex-players, coaches and others have bemoaned having the SA teams in the competition.

Yet ask anyone in Ireland, Wales or Scotland (or Italy for that matter) what the inclusion of the four SA sides has done for the URC. Some may not like it, but the general feeling is that it has made the competition stronger. And that can never be a good thing.

It has taken the SA sides a while to wake up to the reality of not only trying to compete in simultaneous competitions, but to take on some of the richest clubs on the planet in doing so.

And while the uptake has been slow, teams are slowly learning what it means to be competitive in Europe, and how they have to go about it.

South African franchises will never be able to compete in terms of money and signing power - or even the ability to search across the world for an international replacement if they get hit with a spate of injuries.

But the one thing SA teams do have as an advantage is the wealth of talent in the system at the moment.

Just take one small example - the Boks lose Jasper Wiese to a six game ban and already there isn’t panic, just a small nod and the realisation that a half dozen other players are shouting their names to be recognised by the Bok coach in June and July when the test season arrives.

Too often in the past local coaches have been blessed with a wealth of talent that streams through the ranks and then leaves for greener pastures in euros or yen.

Now teams are actively changing their marketing strategy. The Stormers and Bulls have adopted a hybrid strategy of trying to keep their young players on long-term contracts while bringing back SA players who have European experience.

Maintaining a healthy junior structure is key in this, but the combination of good coaching and allowing players to grow while making mistakes plays just as an important role.


Those “school fees”, as Jake White likes to call them, are hugely important to player growth and coaches are learning more and more that they need to create an environment where it is healthy and conducive to grow from mistakes.

When you think of the conveyor belt that has delivered upward of 400 plus players to overseas clubs and how at one stage it decimated local franchises, this change of heart can only be applauded.

The Sharks, of course, have taken a different route, wanting to sign Galacticos as they want to go toe to toe with the best in Europe. But that isn’t always an easy thing to do, no matter how deep the pockets of your investors are.

As the Sharks have found out, their Achilles heel has been their second-stringers, the same players who need to take them through the depths of a season when the Springboks are not there. That depth is what carries all successful clubs to glory at the tail end of the season.

The last part of success though, they have found a way to get right.

The reality of the entire move to Europe is that you need to embrace the travel (and yes, it needs to be better) and make sure the daunting task of winning away from home in front of a foreign crowd doesn’t stop you from playing your best rugby.


The Sharks did this as soon as they decided to concentrate on the Challenge Cup fight, and other teams - like the Lions and Stormers winning in Connacht in the URC - have shown that the odds are not always against you.

It is easier said than done, but the prospect of the current crop of URC youngsters, which scatter across all four teams, being in top form with 100-odd caps under their belts, several years experience of playing in Europe and a hunger to do well is something that is getting closer all the time.

The Sharks struck the first blow for SA participation in the EPCR by capturing the trophy, just as the Stormers did in the URC. South African teams still have a long way to go, but they are learning.

And when they get it right, the future is looking increasingly bright for Champions Cup glory.