European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) chairman Dominic McKay has attributed the ongoing success of South African teams to a vested interest from the country’s stakeholders to grow the game internationally.
The local franchises’ inclusion in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, after its rebranding from the PRO14 when South Africa’s four teams joined the competition in 2021-22, has changed the sport’s landscape.
SA’s further involvement in the top flight of northern-hemisphere club rugby received a massive boost when it was confirmed that the four URC teams and the Free State Cheetahs will play in next season’s two EPCR knockout competitions, the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup.
This means that the SA teams will now cross swords with the best clubs from England and France, after already successfully integrating with teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales in the URC.
The Stormers, Sharks and Vodacom Bulls, all of whom finished in the top eight of the URC and competed in the quarter-finals, will play in the Champions Cup, while the Lions and the Cheetahs will contest the Challenge Cup.
McKay, who was appointed as chairman of the EPCR in October, has overseen the delivery of the new EPCR strategy and eight-year agreement between its stakeholders alongside the board and executive.
Now, he is excited for the furthering of SA rugby’s footprint in Europe and with it, “hugely exciting southern hemisphere rugby, well-known world-class players and broad new audiences”.
McKay also hailed SA Rugby president Mark Alexander and CEO Jurie Roux for helping to pave the way for the country’s groundbreaking progression into Europe.
“I was the chairman of the board of PRO14 and negotiated with Saru along with the executive team to welcome the South African clubs into the PRO14 about four years ago. I must stress the positive dialogue we had in these negotiations with Mark Alexander and Jurie Roux, two administrators I’ve dealt with for a number of years,” he said.
“That was the start of the journey with South Africa being aligned with the northern hemisphere. The success of the South African clubs in the URC is evident so it was natural to take the next step into Europe.
“It’s been a number of years in the making, built on the success of South African teams in the URC.
“Part of the challenge initially was around establishing a proof of concept to show that the tournament could (logistically) include teams from South Africa, and that we could have teams from Italy, Ireland and the United Kingdom travel to South Africa.
“If we look at the success of the SA teams in the URC that’s really helpful as a guide to future success in Europe, sometimes it takes a bit of time for people to understand the benefits.”
The formats for next season’s Champions Cup and Challenge Cup will be announced shortly, in conjunction with the pool draws for both tournaments, to be staged in Dublin on June 23.
McKay added: “We’re expecting to see some incredible rugby, from the Stormers travelling north to play in Paris to La Rochelle heading down to South Africa, it will be fantastic for fans and the whole global game!
“This is a critical moment for rugby as it’s growing – it’s a fast-growing global sport and the way we enjoy and consume our rugby has changed over the past couple of years. It’s important for administrators to listen to what consumers and supporters are interested in and there’s been such an interest in rugby’s growth, particularly in North America and parts of Asia.
“There’s a lot more growing to do but we have to strike a balance between protecting the values of the sport while expanding and developing the game through sensible economic development.”