Farrell fit to play but Bulls primed to get off to rousing start
Hopefully Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the rest of the England players will be in the Saracens team that opens its Investec Champions Cup campaign against the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus on Saturday, for the competition could do with the injection of interest those players would bring.
Farrell, the England captain who last week announced his decision to take a break from international rugby due to mental health challenges, missed his team’s home defeat to Northampton Saints in the English Premiership because of a minor leg injury.
However Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall has said that Farrell will be ready for the Loftus battle.
“We’d expect Owen to be fit to return at the weekend now,” McCall told the UK media. “That would obviously be good news to have him back, but overall mainly because the knee injury was a minor issue.”
It might not be great news for the Bulls but it is for the competition’s standing in this country as the Bulls winning against a team laden with England internationals and with Farrell as it’s face would be a meaningful event that will boost confidence going forward.
SA TEAMS NEED TO SILENCE THE NAYSAYERS
The South African teams, which this time around is down to just two due to the Hollywoodbets Sharks not qualifying, in this year’s edition of the competition need to make a better impression than they did last season for two reasons - they need to ignite the imaginations of the people at home that support them, and also still some of the naysaying voices overseas.
The inclusion of the SA sides, which is the Bulls and the DHL Stormers, attracted some negative comment in the UK and European media when the competition was previewed this past weekend. Just as it did before their first involvement 12 months ago. Take off your nationalistic glasses and look at it objectively, it is also easy to understand - the competition has long been known as the European Cup, yet South Africa is several flying hours from Europe.
The best way to change the perception that teams from this country are an unnecessary addition is to do what the Stormers and Bulls did in the first edition of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship - show that you can offer something different and make statements through performance.
The South African sides only managed to make statements on a limited level last season, where ironically the now absent Sharks were the best local performer with their win against Bordeaux being the most notable away effort. Home wins for them and the Stormers against Harlequins, the latter in the round of 16, were the most noteworthy performances at home.
The Sharks did also hit 50 against the eventual URC winners, Munster, in their round of 16 clash in Durban, but both SA sides were well short in their away quarterfinals - the Sharks losing heavily after initially showing some promise against mighty Toulouse and the Stormers producing their most anonymous performance in two years in going down to Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park.
More than that is needed this year to embed the competition, which really shouldn’t need selling given its status among players as the pinnacle of the game below international level, and given that the Stormers are heading to England and their clash with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, it is the Bulls who are best primed to make a big statement against Saracens.
PRETORIA TEAM LOOKS FORMIDABLE
Particularly at Loftus, where altitude is more of an ally to them than many people realise, the Bulls look formidable, and the ease with which they swotted the Sharks’ challenge aside this past weekend in the big SA URC derby should have sounded a loud warning to the English champions, who in going down to Northampton suffered only their 13th league defeat at home in the past 11 years.
Saracens didn’t come to South Africa, much less to altitude, last season, so this is going to be a new frontier for the team that has been dominant in the England game over much of the past decade, and it will be interesting to see how the English media people who lament the South African inclusion will react if Saracens manage to win here.
It goes without saying that they have a big obstacle in the form of the summer heat - there are now also thunderstorms predicted - in addition to the altitude, but surely taking players out of their comfort zone can only make them stronger. And winning in those conditions will be a big achievement.
The Bulls though will have other ideas, and on the evidence of their last two home games against Connacht and the Sharks, they have threats across the board, from an international class back three that Farrell will know all too well from playing against them for England, to a pack that has now become a top class scrum unit.
LOGISTICS WILL DICTATE STORMERS SELECTION FOR TIGERS
The Stormers haven’t been mentioned in any detail yet for one good reason - they are heading to play an away game this week and when their coach John Dobson spoke after his team’s win over Zebre last week he kind of made it clear that it is the home games that are most important in this competition.
The Stormers did win away against London Irish last season but it was around their home wins that their advance to the last 16 was secured, and Dobson is sitting with a problem that is possibly a more universal one for the competition as a whole now that it spans two hemispheres - the logistics around a six day turnaround between games played in different hemispheres.
After the Stormers play the Tigers they are due to pack down against tournament champions LaRochelle, which is as big a game as you will get for the Cape side in the early rounds. As Dobson put it, players who go to England for the Leicester game will only arrive back in Cape Town next Tuesday afternoon, which will leave them with insufficient time to prepare for such a big game.
The Bulls will face a similar challenge the following week when they head to Lyon, where they lost heavily last season, just a week before their big URC derby match against the Stormers in Cape Town.
The logistics of short turnarounds are something the organisers should perhaps be more mindful of as the best way for the expanded tournament to be successful is for all teams to be at full strength as much as possible.
The signs are good that Saracens will be at full strength for Saturday’s game at Loftus so everything is shaping up for a rollicking start to South Africa’s second foray into a hugely revered and respected international club/provincial competition.
SA sides European fixtures this week
Investec Champions’ Cup
Vodacom Bulls v Saracens (7:30pm)
Leicester Tigers v DHL Stormers (5:15pm)
EPCR Challenge Cup
Zebre Parma v Toyota Cheetahs (3pm)
Hollywoodbets Sharks v Section Paloise (5:15pm)
Perpignan v Emirates Lions (3pm)