South African Eben Etzebeth in Champions Cup Getty

South African lock Eben Etzebeth in action in the Champions Cup. Photo: Getty Images.

South African teams deserve their spot at the Champions Cup table

Martin Anayi: South African sides made big impression in Champions Cup and there can be no argument they deserve to be in Euro competition.

South African Eben Etzebeth in Champions Cup Getty

South African lock Eben Etzebeth in action in the Champions Cup. Photo: Getty Images.

United Rugby Championship chief Martin Anayi says South African teams have made a big impression in the Champions Cup and there can and should be no argument that they deserve to be in the competition.

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If the opening rounds of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup are anything to go by, then South African franchises have certainly made a massive impression first up.

And according to the URC CEO, Anayi, there can be no argument that they deserve their spot in the two tournaments.

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The URC has been buoyed by the success of its teams – all eight participants qualified for the playoff rounds of the Champions Cup and 15 of the 16 URC teams involved in the two European tournaments qualified for the next round.

On top of that, all five South African franchises – including the Cheetahs – qualified for the playoffs in their respective competitions.

This gives the URC a greater participation in the knockout stages than either the English Premiership or French Top 14, adding some spice to the rivalry between the three leagues.

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Anayi has been pleased at the progress thus far — the URC has broken all metrics in terms of spectator attendance, television audience and the tournament continues to go from strength to strength.

Add to that the success in the two formerly European competitions and the outlook looks strong for the URC going forward.

“For us we knew it was coming, we’d seen it in the URC, but it is always nice to read about it. There was even an article on BBC this morning about how positive the entry of the South African teams has been to the Champions’ Cup and Challenge Cup,” Anayi said.

“We’ve got all eight of our teams to qualify for the round of 16 in the Champions Cup and 15 out of 16 qualified for the knockouts across the two competitions. And all the South African teams are through – including the Cheetahs.  I’m happy about that.”

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It is now clear that the inclusion of the South African sides has increased depth in the URC and that has made teams stronger across the board.

“The benefit that we have had of the South African teams coming in – and hopefully it has been reciprocal – is the competition has got better, the more depth that we’ve got in everyone of our squads.

“What we’ve seen is teams like the Sharks not pick their best team and almost beat Leinster away from home. What we are starting to see is that when the best teams are out on the field, the competition is really top notch.

“What we’re seeing in the competition, the depth being created in each of the teams, that plays into the scenario we’ve always been trying to shoot for, is the ‘Any Given Sunday’ philosophy of depth in the competition and jeopardy from one game to another. Taking that forward into Europe has been very pleasant to see. 

“What you are getting now is teams that have not had the run of results they’ve had in the league – say Ospreys and Scarlets winning away in places like Montpellier and Leicester. Scarlets have gone unbeaten in the group stages – we’ve seen that as well with Cardiff putting a really good run together. When they are doing that in those two competitions, it can only be a good thing when they bring that back to their league form.

“That’s the thing I like in having the League plus Cup playing like it does, that you can pick up form – if you don’t have it in the league, or vice versa, there is still something to play for in any game. That is a great aspect of any great series of competitions.”

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While there may have been some initial skepticism, Anayi believes the South African franchises’ performances have changed that perception and will continue to do so in future.

“I knew, because I’ve been through this with the URC entry, once we had teams going down to South Africa – just follow their social media – they’re having a great time. As soon  as they get home, they pass that positivity on. I knew that was going to come. 

“You hope the South African teams will be competitive at home against any rival, but what we’ve seen is South African teams being very competitive away from home. Then you have aspects like Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth staying behind for more than an hour to sign autographs at the Stoop, and that’s connecting. 

“It underlines the fact it is no longer European – this is about Champions Cup rugby, pitting the best teams against the best and we are getting that. There is nobody in this world that can tell me the big four South African franchises don’t deserve their spot at the table.”

The URC resumes this weekend as teams from the five countries continue to battle it out for qualification for next season’s tournament. 

The Sharks in the URC. Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images.
The Sharks in the URC. Photo: Steve Haag/Gallo Images.