European rugby: How Siya Kolisi showed what South African clubs can bring

European rugby: How Siya Kolisi showed what South African clubs can bring

European rugby: How Siya Kolisi showed what South African clubs can bring

An hour after the final whistle sounded on Harlequins‘ 39-29 win over the Sharks from Durban on Saturday, most of the crowd had left the Stoop.

But at the bottom of the Charles Stanley Stand, about a hundred fans remained – arms outstretched as they thrust rugby balls, replica shirts and scraps of paper towards South Africa captain Siya Kolisi.

He obliged with countless signatures and selfies – and when one fan asked for his black-and-white socks, he yanked them off and stood for a further 20 minutes barefoot in the cold.

Kolisi’s team-mate Eben Etzebeth – the towering lock who scored a devilishly crafty try – was similarly targeted by enthusiastic supporters after the match.

Should anyone have needed tangible proof that South African clubs have added value to European club rugby, this was it.

Of course, there will still be those who do not support the inclusion of the Sharks, Bulls and Stormers in the Heineken Champions Cup, and the Lions and Cheetahs in the EPCR Challenge Cup.

England prop Joe Marler – rather mischievously, it has to be said – questioned a trip to South Africa in European competition, while France talisman Antoine Dupont said their inclusion was “difficult to grasp”.

Besides the additional travel and carbon emissions, the presence of the South African teams has resulted in a bloated group stage that has taken some of the gloss from a once glittering competition.

But any doubts were surely put to bed on Saturday. It was a rugby match that felt like an event. Blockbuster talents produced a blockbuster show worthy of the occasion.

“It’s the best club competition in the world,” Etzebeth said. “I have been part of Super Rugby and Top 14 and URC but the Champions Cup is something special, something different.

“All the teams try to roll up to the Champions Cup week and get their best players ready.

“It’s a special competition to play in.”

The South African clubs have evidently taken the competition seriously.

John Dobson and Neil Powell – the head coaches at the Stormers and Sharks respectively – have stated their desire to win the Champions Cup, and both have secured home matches in the last 16. So too have the Lions, who will host Racing 92 in the Challenge Cup knockouts.

“The players have responded really well. From the start, the Boks – the likes of Siya and Eben – wanted to win it,” Powell said.

“It was just a case of understanding the competition. The flow of it. How important it is. Every game is important.”

Stylistically, the adjustment from Super Rugby – with a greater emphasis on running rugby against the New Zealand and Australian franchises – has come easy for the South Africans. European club rugby, often played in cold conditions by teams who seek to dominate up front above all else, suits the newcomers just fine.

“We’re learning that the Champions Cup is actually the elite of world rugby,” said Russell Winter, the Bulls forwards coach.

“If you’re not dominant up front you’ve got no chance. If you don’t front up, it’s going to be a long day.

“That expansive play that you look to play in Super Rugby is more difficult in the snow and wet. The pack needs to be strong and it’s attritional. It’s difficult.”

Another factor has played into South African hands, with jetlag no longer a barrier to success.

Long-haul flights across the Indian Ocean for Super Rugby matches would traverse up to 10 different time zones and would greatly impact the performance of visiting teams.

Now, shorter journeys to Europe mean teams can travel in midweek and still feel fresh for a weekend game.

Not that the journey up north is an easy one – most teams have opted to cut costs and cram their gigantic athletes in economy class. And once they arrive, many step into a wholly alien landscape.

“Some of the guys had never seen snow before this week,” says Winter. “But we’re blessed to be doing this. We’re blessed to be here.”

The differences in weather have obviously made for different playing conditions – as the Bulls were ploughing through snowfall on Friday, the Stormers were running riot under glorious Cape Town sunshine, beating Clermont Auvergne 30-16.

The distance and travel costs have also acted as a deterrent for away fans. There were about a hundred Clermont fans in attendance in Cape Town, according to SuperSport commentator Matthew Pearce, but that is an exception.

“Credit to them for making the journey,” Pearce says.

“It would be wonderful if more fans followed their teams. Will we see the same for Quins against Stormers? Maybe we will. As the competition matures and more fans get behind the new structure, things will evolve.”

Pearce says South Africans are certainly warming to the tournament. He has made a point of educating his audience on the prestige of European club rugby when on commentary duty.

“I’ve loved it,” he says. “There’s been a lot said of travel schedules and other issues – but it’s been brilliant.

“The fans at home have really got behind it. The time zones help. When I’m not working, I’m still watching the Champions Cup, more than I did with Super Rugby.

“I know I’m not the only one.”

It’s taken a while, but the South Africans now feel fully enmeshed in European club rugby.

And, whatever the doubters may say, they have certainly played their part.

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