As the long weekend and my chocolate stash disappeared, so too did the South African teams’ hopes of progressing beyond the quarter-finals of the European Champions and Challenge cups. And that’s okay. Well, maybe not 100% okay, because we all want our teams to win every single game they play, and believe they can, but close enough. Like with everything in life, context is key.
For starters, this was our teams’ first foray into these competitions, and it’s not bad going for three out of five to make it through to the quarters of the two contests. In fairness, we may have had slightly unrealistic expectations, given how well our teams did in our inaugural season of the URC, but most would agree that the Champions and Challenge cups are a different kettle of fish. We didn’t have to juggle both competitions during last year’s URC (as well as the Currie Cup – make it make sense that it’s been scheduled at the same time!) and that certainly adds complexity to team selection and fitness.
Further complexity is added by the fact that it’s a Rugby World Cup year, and our Springboks are being managed very aggressively, and rightly so. I’m sure other teams are managing their internationals too, but once the two European contests, and the URC are done, they’re done. The Six Nations is just a distant memory. The Springboks, however, will be gearing up for the Rugby Championship, and so managing their game time during these competitions is essential even outside of a World Cup year. There’s a reason that SARU is trying to negotiate for the Rugby Championship to be moved to align with the Six Nations, and it’s because our players no longer have a built in rest period. Something will have to give eventually (and hopefully it’s not us joining the Six Nations, but that’s a whole separate article). We’ve already seen some worrying injuries to players that we can’t afford to lose ahead of the World Cup, and so it becomes a toss up between wrapping them up in cotton wool before the showpiece gets started, and keeping them playing just enough minutes to ensure that they don’t get rusty.
And then of course there’s the thorny issue of the travel arrangements. A video surfaced over the weekend, showing the Lions players squished into their seats for the long journey home from the UK. There’s barely any legroom on those flights for the average human being, but when you’re the size of a rugby player, flying economy must be unbearable. The travel issue has been discussed extensively over the last few months, as it dawns on fans (and players, I’m sure) that the lure of playing in Europe to avoid the long journeys to Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Argentina has been oversold. The Qatar Airways deal has come under fire repeatedly, but it’s not a factor in these competitions, as it’s only in place for the URC. That doesn’t change the fact that teams are taking as long as two days to get to their final destination, and they’re doing it crammed into seats that they can barely move in. It’s not exactly conducive to a top tier performance when they get to the other side. There’s also the question of scheduling, which sees teams flying back and forth repeatedly instead of doing mini tours and only travelling once or twice. Of course, the European teams have to make the same lengthy trips when they come to SA, but are they doing it in economy? I’m not sure, but I really don’t think so. Our teams need to be flying business class, but that requires money, and the terms of our admission to these contests include not seeing any of the income for the first few seasons. Which is also insane, but a whole other discussion. I’d argue that until the money starts coming in, and we can manage the travel better, making it as far as the quarters is a bigger deal than we’d like to let on.
Much of this has been discussed extensively online, and SA fans are (again) being slammed for making excuses and whining when our teams lose. That’s also okay. Make no mistake, we faced fierce competition, and Toulouse, Exeter Chiefs, and Glasgow Warriors deserved their victories. There’ll be no blaming the ref or the iffy French TV replays from me. We were good – they were better. The Sharks game in particular was a bit of a heartbreak, and not just because they’re my team, but because they were absolutely in it until the final ten minutes and then they just got blown off the park. Did they just take the proverbial foot off the pedal, or did all of the above factors come into play? Either way, it wasn’t meant to be for us this year, and so all we can do is congratulate the victors and trust our teams to keep fighting, rather than slamming them for losing – we know what they’re capable of, and that they’ll be taking the lessons from these tournaments not only into next year’s iteration, but into the World Cup in France later this year.