VIDEO: Challenge Cup 'no gimme' for Euro newcomers Cheetahs and Lions
The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers may well compete in Europe’s top tier next season, but the challenge will be equally as demanding for the Cheetahs and Lions.
This is the view of Bulls Director of Rugby Jake White, following the news that five South African franchises have been formally invited to the top tables in Europe next season.
The Cape Town-based Stormers, the Bulls from Pretoria and the Durban-based Sharks will compete in next season’s Champions Cup – as qualifiers by finishing in the top eight of the United Rugby Championship.
The Lions from Johannesburg, who finished outside the top 10 of the URC, and Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs (by special invitation) will fly the flag for South Africa in the second-tier Challenge Cup.
It has been suggested that the Challenge Cup is an ‘inferior’ competition, for teams who failed elsewhere.
However, the Bulls boss believes nothing could be further from the truth.
White made it clear that the Champions Cup is the ‘ultimate’ prize in the European game, but said playing in the Challenge Cup is not to be sneezed at.
“You could see the excitement Lyon displayed by being the first Lyon team to win a trophy in 90 years,” he said of their 30-12 triumph over Toulon in the Challenge Cup Final a little more than a week ago.
The Bulls boss pointed out that the 51,431 spectators were the most ever at a Challenge Cup Final, adding that the Challenge Cup is a great opportunity for teams and players to test themselves against some world-class opposition.
“Next year you could end up playing [teams like] Clermont-Ferrand, Toulon and Bath,” White said, adding: “You are talking about teams that have won the Champions Cup.
“It is not an easy competition.
“Those teams are vying to qualify for the Champions Cup [by winning the Challenge Cup].
“I don’t believe playing in the Challenge Cup is any easier because the teams [in the competition] change like that.
“Who would have thought Toulon would [end up] playing in a Challenge Cup Final when they dominate the Champions Cup – along with Saracens – for almost 10 years.”
White, added to the World Rugby hall of fame for winning the 2007 World Cup, has first-hand experience of playing in and winning the Challenge Cup.
As coach of French outfit Montpellier he won the Challenge Cup, defeating English premiership outfit Harlequins 26–19 in the Final at Grand Stade de Lyon in May 2016.
The Montpellier team on the day included a number of Springboks – like two-times World Cup winner Frans Steyn, Pierre Spies, as well as brothers Bismarck and Jannie du Plessis.
Other South Africans in that team included Jacques du Plessis, Robert Ebersohn and Demetri Catrakilis.
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White added that he is “very excited” about the Bulls playing in the top tier if Europe, the Champions Cup.
“This is where you get measured,” the Bulls boss said.
“Look at that game [last] weekend – Leinster playing against La Rochelle [at Stade Vélodrome in Marseille] and even Munster playing against Leinster in the URC with 40,000 spectators, that is what we will experience.”
White said his only real concern is that with the five franchises now playing in three first-class competitions – the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, the United Rugby Championship and the Currie Cup – he hopes the domestic event, Currie Cup, doesn’t get watered down.
“That would be a very sad day for me,” the Bulls boss said.
“We are going to have to – with all this rugby – find a proper window for the Currie Cup,” he said, adding that it shouldn’t be just another event on the calendar.
He said it could go the same way as other domestic sponsored competitions, that are no longer in existence.
“It was just a question of time before those tournaments died.
“I am hoping it is not [for the Currie Cup].
“It is lovely that we are involved in all these tournaments at the top end of the game.
“However, as an old-school rugby guy the Currie Cup is close to my heart and we will have to find a way that some of our top players feature in the Currie Cup.