The idea that South Africa’s integration into European club rugby should be limited to the PRO16 for the foreseeable future is naive and impractical, writes ZELIM NEL.
A South African team will lift the European Champions Cup in the next five seasons. Yep, you read that correctly – by the time the 2027 season commences, at least one of the Bulls, Lions, Sharks or Stormers will have won the PRO16 and then conquered all comers in the Champions Cup.
It doesn’t require a great leap of faith to make such a statement. The Springboks are world champions for the third time, South Africa’s top rugby schools produce some of the most sought-after rugby talent on the planet, and many of the leading European squads lean heavily on the southern-hemisphere stars who were on display every week in Super Rugby.
The club jewel in Sanzaar’s crown for more than two decades, Super Rugby was stacked heavily against teams from the Republic which had to endure the worst of jet lag and month-long tours – and yet those teams contested nine finals and won three titles.
Travel will be less of a factor when the four franchises graduate from the Rainbow Cup SA to compete in the expanded PRO16. However, as was the case with their Australasian counterparts, Euro rugby bosses seem eager to benefit from the South African broadcast audience but less enthusiastic about giving those teams uncapped access to the treasure chest of northern-hemisphere club rugby.
Earlier this week, Vincent Gaillard, chief of European Professional Club Rugby, cheerfully delivered an update on plans to launch an eight-team Club World Cup as soon as 2024.
He was also very chuffed to confirm that the EPCR and each of the participating federations had agreed to partake in the next nine European Cups, including the 2030 edition.
Gaillard then made it known that ‘there will be no South African clubs in the European Cup next season, that’s for sure’. He added that while it is ‘theoretically possible’ for an SA team to be included in the second-tier Challenge Cup, it is ‘quite unlikely’.
Well, it’s even less likely (read: impossible) that SA Rugby signed up for the PRO16 without expecting equitable access to qualification for competitions such as the Champions Cup.
Surely Vinny and his chums don’t think South Africa opted for a straight swap of the Crusaders, Brumbies, Chiefs and Hurricanes of Super Rugby for Munster, Leinster, Ospreys and Edinburgh in the PRO16?
Is it possible that there are salaried rugby administrators out there who sincerely think it feasible to deny a South African team qualification to the Champions Cup after they have won the PRO16 without dealing a hammer blow to the credibility of the European club championship?
Perhaps Vinny is being coy, or he isn’t in the know. Or maybe he’s posturing to placate officials from the minnow clubs who think it’s unfair that winless Benetton didn’t have a shot at Champions Cup glory.
In staying true to the Springboks’ on-field reputation, SA Rugby has made a full-blooded switch to northern-hemisphere rugby and (put your fingers in your ears now, Vinny) that means it’s only a matter of time before South Africa replaces Italy in the Six Nations.