SA's results in Europe food for thought
With one exception, it was all new for the South African teams making their debuts in the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup this past weekend, but it may have been the games featuring the overseas teams that told us more about what to expect.
The exception was the Lions, who played a team they already know from the United Rugby Championship, the Dragons. The match ended in a draw after the Lions won against those opponents in the URC two weeks ago, a result which may suggest the learning and acclimatisation to altitude has been sharp for the Welsh team.
Lyon certainly showed no signs of being negatively impacted by altitude when they fought back so well after looking dead and buried in a Champions Cup game against the Bulls in Pretoria that was played at the highest point in the history of the competition.
But it is what to expect from opponents going forward that should most interest South Africans, and the performances of teams we already know well from the URC provided some interesting pointers about the relative strengths. For a start, a glance through the results will show only a three point defeat for Zebre against Toulon. Admittedly that game was in Parma, but Zebre are the last placed team in the URC, and are without a victory so far, while Toulon have won major trophies in the past.
But the big statement of the weekend was made by the URC frontrunners, Leinster, who followed up their come from behind derby URC win over Ulster last week with a massive 42-10 win over Racing 92, who made the Champions Cup semi-finals last season. And it wasn’t a home game for Leinster either. The game wasn’t played at Racing’s usual home ground because of a date clash with a pop concert, but it was played on French soil. How’s that for a huge statement?
Maybe we are looking at it with South African eyes, which are new to European competition. Perhaps we will learn in time that teams target certain games, and go in full strength for some and not so full strength for others. But certainly across both competitions there were games featuring URC teams against French or English teams that produced some interesting results that might give South Africans hope about their chances of winning going forward.
The anomaly was Ulster’s 39-0 defeat to Sale. Perhaps some examination of the fine-print is necessary there. For the rest though, the URC teams seemed very competitive against some big name teams that will come into the path of the local sides later in the competition.
Glasgow Warriors won away against Bath in the Challenge Cup, and Cardiff, admittedly on their home ground, did pretty much the same thing to Brive that they did to the Cell C Sharks in Durban a few weeks ago – they whitewashed them. Talking about the supposedly weak Welsh teams, Ospreys showed how strong they are when they have their Welsh international players back by only just losing away at Welford Road to the Leicester Tigers, the reigning Gallagher Premiership champions.
And Scarlets, thrashed by the DHL Stormers second team a few weeks ago and also well beaten by the Emirates Lions, were 39-7 winners over the French club, Bayonne, in the Challenge Cup. In the Champions Cup Munster, who until recently were struggling in the URC, only just went down at home to mighty Toulouse, who are multiple time winners of the competition. Edinburgh were in it all the way against Saracens.
The first games involving South African teams lived up to their billing. Right down to the Stormers, the reigning URC champions, being introduced to the realities of just how difficult it is to win in France, particularly at an inhospitable venue like Clermont and particularly if you let the opposition get momentum.
The Stormers didn’t look like they had any bullets to fire at the highly physical and sizeable Clermont players once they got going, and in the end probably did well to only lose by 10 points. The Stormers were not full strength and it was a day where life was made difficult for them by the absence of Springbok lock Marvin Orie and then the subsequent injuries to Ernst van Rhyn, who would have switched to lock, and Gary Porter.
It left the Stormers without the beef to match Clermont, but you sense it might be a different story when Clermont-Auvergne head to Cape Town in January. And that’s where their Champions Cup challenge is for the Stormers – they now have to win well against London Irish this weekend and beat Clermont in the return fixture to have any chance of advancing to the round of 16.
The Sharks and Bulls are in more comfortable positions, but then the advantage there is had to be playing at home was known beforehand. The Sharks were impressive in dispatching Harlequins in the first Champions Cup game on South African soil and had it not been for the red card shown to Ox Nche after a clash of heads – that law remains ridiculous! – they would have won far more comfortably.
Given that they were playing with a second string team, the Bulls were impressive too. Yes, they nearly lost it in the end thanks to an enthralling Lyon fightback at Loftus (what was that about altitude?), and as many are suggesting, Jake White’s decision to go in understrength nearly backfired on him. But it didn’t, and he ended up seeing his team bag a full house of five log points on a night where he was testing his depth.
What White did do with his selection was provide us with a memorable game, and a fitting one to form part of the first Champions Cup meal for South African eyes, as some of the skill shown by Lyon in their fightback was sublime, though no doubt helped by poor opposition defence.
Champions Cup results
London Irish 27 Montpellier 32
La Rochelle 46 Northampton 12
Bulls 42 Lyon 36
Gloucester 22 Bordeaux Begles 17
Sharks 39 Harlequins 31
Clermont Auvergne 24 Stormers 14
Racing 92 10 Leinster 42
Ospreys 17 Leicester 23
Castres 12 Exeter 27
Sale 39 Ulster 0
Saracens 30 Edinburgh 26
Munster 13 Toulouse 18
European Challenge Cup results
Perpignan 5 Bristol Bears 19
Stade Francais 24 Benetton Rugby 14
Lions 31 Dragons 31
Bath 19 Glasgow Warriors 22
Pau 16 Cheetahs 21
Cardiff Blues 41 Brive 0
Connacht 22 Newcastle Falcons 8
Zebre 21 Toulon 24
Scarlets 39 Bayonne 7