Juggernaut Cup finalists are the teams SA needs to catch

rugby06 May 2024 06:20
By:Gavin Rich
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Gloucester try @ getty images

The emotion-charged EPCR Challenge Cup semifinal between the Hollywoodbets Sharks and Clermont-Auvergne should have whet the South African appetite for European cup competition, but it is the two juggernauts squaring up in the main final on 25 May that the South African teams need to aspire to beat.

As would have been largely anticipated once Leinster had knocked out the reigning champions La Rochelle after making the quarterfinal with a close win over the DHL Stormers in Cape Town, it is the two most successful teams in the history of the Investec Champions Cup that square up at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

The Vodacom United Rugby Championship contenders and long-time log leaders until just over a week ago, Leinster, have won Europe’s main prize four times. They are usurped only by Toulouse, who have won it five times. So this final is a bit like the Rugby World Cup final of half a year ago - it will determine the pecking order in most wins, with Leinster trying to make it 5-5.


After missing out on the final in the last two editions of the competition, Toulouse made it through by beating Harlequins on Sunday, but as with Leinster, it was a much harder fight for them than anticipated and in some ways, the two Champions Cup semifinals offered some encouragement to South African ambitions in the competition.

The Northampton Saints, who did beat the Vodacom Bulls comfortably in the quarterfinal, but that was a second-string Bulls team, fought back from a 17-point deficit to boss the second half in front of 82 000 people at Dublin’s Croke Park and only went down by three. Harlequins also staged a fightback in Toulouse and were still in the game with 12 minutes to go.

It was a converted try at that point that confirmed Toulouse’s passage to the final as they went 12 points clear. But Harlequins, who lost to both the Sharks and the Stormers on South African soil in last year’s Champions Cup, gave it a really good game and their electrifying brand of rugby had Toulouse, dominated by France internationals, stunned at stages of the second half.

The five-time champions had to score six tries against an English team that nicked it by a single point against another form French team, the Bordeaux Begles, in their quarterfinal.

In the end, it was the Toulouse power game that triumphed over Harlequins' enterprise to set up a dream final in London, with Leinster searching for a triumph that they were denied in agonising circumstances in two close finals against La Rochelle in the last two editions. Although they let Northampton back in the game in the second half, the shadow Irish test team will have felt they had done the hard yards and had the game won in the first half.

Once they got into a 20-3 lead, they appeared to take their feet off the gas and what we’ve seen in the Champions Cup is the passion and drive that all teams have for what is considered rugby’s most prestigious club trophy. So give a side half an opening and they will summon up the guts and the tenacity required.

Certainly, that was the case with the first South African team to win through to an EPCR Challenge Cup final, the Sharks, who conceded three first-half tries to none and trailed by 13 points and yet were able to come back to win in dramatic style against Clermont-Auvergne by the margin that overseas sides became accustomed to in playoff games against the Springboks last year - one solitary point.

There hasn’t always been great in-stadium support for the Champions Cup or Challenge Cup in South Africa in the first two seasons, and it may be that the extra year that the URC has been played in the country means it is still the more established of the two, the one that the locals most identify with at this point.

However, close games and the raw emotion that accompanies both victory and narrow failure in the cut-throat knock-out cup competitions is what catch imaginations and draw in eyes. In that sense, two of the most recent games, the Stormers’ narrow loss to La Rochelle in Cape Town and now the Sharks' win at the Stoop in London, should have provided a boost in interest.

The Sharks will face Gloucester, who fought hard initially to overcome another URC team, Benetton, in their final on 24 May, the night before the main event. The Sharks could be part of that main event next year if they can fulfil their mission and pick up a trophy which is most significant for the entry it provides into the 2024-25 Champions Cup.

Weekend results

Investec Champions Cup

Leinster 20 Northampton Saints 17

Toulouse 38 Harlequins 26

EPCR Challenge Cup

Hollywoodbets Sharks 32 Clermont-Auvergne 31

Gloucester 40 Benetton 23