South Africa has double the amount of teams in the Champions Cup quarter-finals than Ireland. The tide is turning, with Ireland’s provincial dominance put to the test since South Africa’s move north just over a year ago, writes Mark Keohane
The DHL Stormers were the shock winners of the inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship, hosting all three their play-off matches, with the playing of a home final down to the Bulls stunning a Leinster team that had lost the Champions Cup final a week earlier.
Leinster, in all competitions, this season have been as imposing as ever and are without doubt the strongest squad. They have shown a capability to field three teams and their third team is as competitive as most of the opposition’s first teams.
They welcomed back 14 Irish internationals for their Champions Cup last 16 match against Ulster, and they won comfortably.
A week earlier Leinster, without those 14 internationals, drew 22-all at home to the Stormers, who a week later would decisively beat London Harlequins to advance to the quarter-final. They Stormers would be playing in Cape Town this weekend, was it not for Exeter scoring in extra time to draw 33-all at home to Montpellier and qualify by way of scoring five tries to four in the match.
The Sharks were huge winners in a crushing display against Munster. The 50 points scored by the Sharks is the second most ever conceded by Munster in a Heineken Cup match. Munster scored two late converted tries but the 15 point final score differential was a lot more in the context of the game being over as a contest by half-time.
South Africa’s move to the north initially caused a stir and the emotions were mixed. Some delighted in what the SA teams could bring to the URC and into the Champions and Challenge Cup respectively and others dismissed their value.
The latter were naive in their thinking. South Africa’s presence has added to the quality of all the competitions and it has also added hugely to the broadcast numbers. SuperSport’s numbers were always big in the days of Super Rugby and the impact has been similar with the SA teams playing in competitions made up of the best clubs from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy.
Ireland, for so long, have owned the battle for supremacy in what was the Pro 12 and then the expanded Pro 14, when South Africa’s Kings and Cheetahs were introduced. The latter two seemed an afterthought, but this was not the case when the Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and Lions were added to a new competition involving the Celtic nations called the URC.
The decision to do away with the European Cup and rebrand it the Champions Cup with SA teams eligible has produced immediate results. It is a wonderful achievement for South Africa to have two teams of their three participating teams in the last eight, and it will be a case of when a South African team wins the Champions Cup, and not if it will happen.
Ireland have been tremendous, at provincial and international level, and they have some of the very best players in the world playing across their four provinces. Leinster is an international team and, to quote veteran Jonny Sexton, a team that took a decade to be spoken of with such reverence.
The success has not been a one-season fairytale.
But for the first time the Irish, across the board, are looking over their shoulders at the charging South African cavalry, which can only be good for Irish rugby.
Ireland and South Africa, at provincial and Test level, has all the potential to develop into the type of rivalry enjoyed and experienced between South Africa and New Zealand – and that can only be good for the world game.
The Challenge Cup must not be forgotten amid the primary focus being on the Champions Cup, and the manner in which a 14-player Emirates Lions side destroyed France’s Racing 92 and scored 51 points, was among my highlights for the weekend.
The play-offs generally delivered rugby of the highest quality and South Africa showed that it won’t be long before they have a seat at the north’s top four table.