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

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

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

She took countless autographs and selfies—and when a fan asked for her black and white socks, she took them off and stood barefoot for another 20 minutes in the cold.

Kolisi’s teammate Eben Etzebeth – the rising key who made a demonic attempt at cunning – was similarly targeted by enthusiastic fans after the match.

If anyone needed tangible proof that South African clubs add value to European club rugby, this is it.

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

England prop Joe Marler

– quite mischievously, it must be said – while questioning his trip to South Africa in the European competition, France talisman Antoine Dupont

He said their inclusion was “hard to grasp”.

Along with the additional travel and carbon emissions, the presence of South African teams has resulted in a bloated group stage that takes in some of the brilliance of what was once a glittering competition.

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But any doubts were certainly laid on Saturday. It was a rugby match that felt like an event. Blockbuster talent put together a blockbuster show worthy of the occasion.

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

“All teams are trying to prepare for Champions Cup week and prepare their best players.

“A special competition to play.”

South African clubs have clearly taken the competition seriously.

Stormers and Sharks head coaches, John Dobson and Neil Powell, respectively, have expressed their desire to win the Champions Cup, and both have secured their home games in the round of 16. Challenge Cup qualifiers.

“The players have responded really well. From the beginning, Boxers like Siya and Eben wanted to win,” said Powell.

“It was just a matter of understanding the competition. The flow. How important. Every game matters.”

In terms of style, it’s gotten easier for the South Africans from Super Rugby – with more emphasis on rugby running against the New Zealand and Australian teams. European club rugby is best suited for newcomers, often played in cold conditions by teams that want to be ahead above all else.

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

“If you’re not dominant at the front, you don’t stand a chance. If you’re not ahead, it’s going to be a long day.

“That broad game you’re thinking of playing in Super Rugby is harder in snow and wet. The herd needs to be strong and it’s grueling. It’s tough.”

Another factor that comes to mind for South Africa is that jetlag is no longer an obstacle to success.

Long-haul flights across the Indian Ocean for Super Rugby matches will span 10 different time zones and will greatly affect the performance of the visiting teams.

Shorter trips to Europe now mean teams can travel mid-week and still feel vigorous for a weekend game.

The journey north is not an easy one – most teams have chosen to cut costs and fill their giant athletes in economy class. And when they arrive, many step into a completely unfamiliar landscape.

“Some of the kids had never seen snow before this week,” Winter says. “But we’re very lucky to have done it. We’re very lucky to be here.”

Differences in weather clearly created different playing conditions – the Bulls continued to snow on Friday, while the Stormers rioted in the glorious Cape Town sunshine by beating Clermont Auvergne 30-16.

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Distance and travel costs have also been a deterrent for away fans. According to SuperSport commentator Matthew Pearce, there were about a hundred Clermont fans in Cape Town, but this one is an exception.

“We thank them for making the journey,” Pearce says.

“It would be great if more fans followed their team. Will we see the same thing for Quins against the Stormers? Maybe we will. Things will improve as the competition matures and more fans stand behind the new structure.”

Pearce says South Africans are definitely warming up to the tournament. In his commentary role, he took care to educate his audience on the prestige of European club rugby.

“I loved it,” he says. “A lot has been said about itineraries and other topics – but it was great.

“The fans at home are really behind that. The time zones help. When I’m not working, I watch more Champions Cups than I watch Super Rugby.

“I know I’m not alone.”

It took some time, but South Africans now feel completely immersed in the web of European club rugby.

And whatever the doubters might say, they certainly did their part.

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