The Investec Champions’ Cup fever is coming, even though it may seem as if South African audiences have been slow to embrace the tournament in the first year and a half. That’s the view of Vodacom Bulls coach Jake White.
The World Cup winning coach believes that as audiences get educated to the big names playing in the competition, and realise the quality of what he calls “the best club competition in the world”, they will embrace it to its fullest.
White’s side qualified along with the DHL Stormers to host home Round of 16 games in the tournament, while the three other SA Franchises - the Emirates Lions, Hollywoodbets Sharks and Toyota Cheetahs - all qualified for the Round of 16 in the EPCR Challenge Cup.
The fact that the two sides in the Champions’ Cup grabbed home fixtures is an improvement in the previous season where both were eliminated away in the Round of 16 and shows how the SA teams are adapting to their environment.
The fixtures for both competitions were released Thursday with the Bulls getting a 13:30 (SA Time) kickoff at Loftus Versfeld against Lyon and the Stormers hosting defending champions La Rochelle at 16:00 (SA Time) at Cape Town Stadium.
White said while fans are still getting to grips with the format, it is natural, but when they embrace the competition, it will be something special in South Africa.
“It will take time. Super Rugby was the same when South African teams started competing people didn’t know the teams either, people were asking who are the Reds? And then it was franchises, where the Golden Lions were playing,” White said.
“You can imagine as a supporter, there are tournaments within tournaments, and one week the internationals are there and the next they aren’t. Why one week do we play in one tournament and the next week another?
“All I can say to you is that when they get it, it will explode. The best clubs in rugby come together to play in the Champions Cup. If I use football as an example, players have in their contracts that if they don’t play Champions Cup, they can leave and get out of their contracts.
“That is how big it is in football. It is going to happen as well in rugby.
“When people understand that Champions Cup rugby is exactly that, the best 24 teams in the world play each other. Therefore every player aspires to play at that level.
“It is true that every boy in South Africa wants to be a Springbok, but the next level where he is going to be tested is to face international opposition at this level. Teams that play in the URC are fighting for their lives to make sure they are in the top eight to qualify for the Champions Cup.
“There are so many things at play but supporters will get to see the best players and they will get it. If you play a team that has 10-15 internationals, that is like a test match and we want to fill up stadiums. When a guy like Owen Farrell comes to Loftus, he has over 100 caps for his country, and two World Cup medals and Maro Itoje is the same.
“But it will happen, I was part of Super Rugby in 1996 when it started and it was the same thing. People didn’t understand the schedule. When it does take off, and the public understands that the best players in South Africa will play the best of other countries, then I have no doubt there will be a buy-in.”
White went further, calling it “club rugby on steroids”.
“When the likes of La Rochelle, Toulouse, and Leinster bring out their players, you start comparing the number of internationals on each side.
“You’re now pitting youngsters who are still growing, but sport is an amazing thing, and there’s a reason why people follow sports around the world. They do so for the reason that on the day that a team that isn’t supposed to win ends up winning. Hopefully, our belief will grow and we get better, but I’m also a realist, as we saw with last week’s games that were on a different level.
“It’s club rugby on steroids.”
The Round of 16 will take place over the weekend of April 9 and 10.
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