Greater depth, and strategic squad choices for away games are playing an increasing part of how South African franchises are approaching their tasks in both the Champions’ Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup this season.
Home ground advantage will always play a massive role in the erstwhile European Cup competitions — now renamed the Investec Champions’ Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup — and in the first year it seemed almost overwhelming for some South African franchises in the way they approached the competition, with all sides being blown away in the playoff rounds without making much progress further against some of the European powerhouses.
While only the Bulls and Stormers qualified for the Investec Champions’ Cup, three other franchises — the Lions, Sharks and Cheetahs will all be playing in the second tier EPCR Challenge Cup, which also pits them against some top European opposition.
And the impact of the long season, the need to rotate players and the need to protect the long term interests while trying to be successful means a bigger squad and more rotation, with strategic choices already coming to the fore.
The Lions were the first to make these changes this week, selecting an almost new 26-man squad to head to Perpignan to face the French Top 14 side, where World Cup winning Springbok Marvin Orie plies his trade.
The Lions were honest in their assessment why — because of the cross-hemisphere travel, from summer heat to winter cold and the obvious dangers it brings for professional athletes, as well as the fact that SA teams travel economy class with a change over in Qatar or another middle eastern airport hub, and another big game next weekend in the tournament, it makes sense to split squads so that the outcomes are as good as they can be.
The Bulls and Stormers last year found out that sending their top squads abroad and then trying to win at home a week later can be a tough task considering the demands it puts on players.
Lions forwards coach Julian Redelinghuys was honest in his assessment of the task facing SA Franchises in the so-called European cup weeks, with all the preparation having to be done in SA and the focus being on recovery abroad to put the best chance of a victory forward.
“I think it is really interesting how we have to go about it — if you look at our travel schedule, and I don’t think a lot of people are aware of how we have to travel in a week like this,” Redelinghuys said.
“We travel on Wednesday evening and only arrive on Thursday and then we still have a bus drive to our venue. Our game is on Sunday and we only fly back on Monday, we arrive in SA on Tuesday late afternoon. So for you to travel with one squad, play that game and travel back and only arrive back on a Tuesday, that is really tough.
“I think that is why you will see all the teams looking to manage their squads, it also helps with building squad depth and gives you a chance to reward those guys who have worked hard while the other guys were playing.
“That is how we have seen teams doing it and what we will see from South African teams.”
The approach is nothing new. French Top14 sides often send so-called second string sides abroad for pool games in the Champions’ Cup and load their sides with their internationals in front of their home crowds.
And then when the playoff rounds come, the teams play their full squad sides in order to try and add a trophy to the cabinet.
The Bulls have already signalled that they will do that in their trip to Lyon next weekend while the Stormers are sending what is probably a second-string outfit to Leicester Tigers with the prospect of Champions’ Cup defending champs La Rochelle visiting Cape Town a week later.
It makes sense for Dobson to target La Rochelle rather than try and spread his squad too thin this week and then perform next weekend in a big game.
“Beating La Rochelle is non-negotiable,” Dobson said after the win over Zebre in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship. “If we get a point away from home it will be good, but you just can’t afford to lose at home.
“La Rochelle is not only important for us but also for Cape Town. It will be our first real home game of this season at DHL Stadium, and the season already started in October.
“With a few exceptions, the team that played against Zebre is the one that will face La Rochelle,” Dobson added.
“Does it make any sense to detour players like Damian Willemse and Deon Fourie to play in the northern hemisphere and then have them come back for a game six days later?”
All this means that the strategic choices, the two-squad system and a new way of thinking is here to stay and squad depth and the ability to manage the demands of the Champions’ Cup and Challenge Cup will really determine how much progress South African rugby has made in Europe.
United Rugby Championship