South Africans add 'extra bit of flavour' to European competitions
The first season of Champions Cup and Challenge Cup rugby with South African teams ended on Saturday as holders La Rochelle edged Leinster in the showpiece event in front of a sold-out Lansdowne Road crowd.
For the South Africans, there was a touch of disappointment that none of their five franchises got beyond the quarter-finals in either competition.
In the Champions Cup, the Bulls reached the last 16 while the Sharks, led by Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, and the Stormers went a round further.
In the second-tier Challenge Cup, the Cheetahs qualified for the knockouts before defeat to eventual winners Toulon, and the Lions lost to runners-up Glasgow in the last eight.
Glasgow were led to the final by ex-Springboks fly-half Franco Smith, who has spent time as a coach and player in his home country as well as Italy and now Scotland, and he welcomed the South African presence in the competitions.
"It adds a little bit of extra flavour," Smith told reporters after the loss to Toulon.
"From a rugby perspective they add more physicality."
Outfits from the republic have been involved in European domestic competition since 2017, with four now competing in the United Rugby Championship against teams from Scotland, Ireland, Italy and Wales.
Until their integration in the two European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) organised tournaments this term, the South Africans sides either had a weekend off during the competitions' rounds or they played against each other.
"It would be unfair to the rest of the URC teams if they had a bye week when we play in the EPCR," Smith said.
"That is important," he added.
- 'Adjustment' -
On Saturday, two Springboks, in the shape of backs Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule, helped La Rochelle to their second Champions Cup crown.
During the campaign, there were examples of South African sides travelling 30 hours for games, like the Stormers heading to Clermont in France via the Middle East.
Additionally, the increased plane travel drew criticism for its impact on the environment and player welfare.
"There has been a lot of negative feedback for the South Africans being involved but personally, for Ray and me, we enjoy seeing our fellow South Africans in this competition," Leyds told reporters after the final victory
"It was the first year so there was a bit of adjustment and a lot of travelling," he added with a winners’ medal around his neck.
According to newspaper Rapport, the Stormers, Bulls, Sharks and Lions will have their salary caps increased from $3.2 million to $4.3 million for next season and will be able to contract four players exempt from the spending restrictions.
Last week, EPCR opened the door to even further internationalisation of its competitions with cities in South Africa and also the United States, which has no teams competing in either competition, interested in holding future finals after London in 2024.
"Next year they'll be better. They'll be stronger," Leyds said.
"What happened on Saturday will motivate them to be in a similar position to play for the cup.
"They're really good teams and will want to be in this position to win a Champions Cup and be the first South African side to do that," he added.