‘We want to win’: South African rugby sets its sights on European glory | Andy Bull
2024/04/01

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It is about 5,500 miles from London to Pretoria, which makes it 11 hours and a world away for Saracens, who travelled there this week for their opening fixture of the . It was 5C when the squad boarded the plane and 35C when they got off it. All of which topsy-turviness sums up the twist club rugby has got itself in.

At a time when everyone is worried about the players’ workloads and mental welfare, club rugby has somehow ended up in a position where teams are going back and forth around the globe from one week to the next.

Last Saturday on a freezing English winter night at the StoneX Stadium, this Saturday it’s the Bulls on what is forecast to be a sweltering summer one at Loftus Versfeld.

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The club have given themselves a week on the ground to get used to the conditions and will need to make good use of every second of it.

The have not yet lost a home game against a European team, in the United Rugby Championship or the Champions Cup. In their past five matches there they have hammered Leinster 62-7, Zebre 78-12, Scarlets 63-21, Connacht 53-27, and the Sharks 44-10. The stadium is on the Highveld and holds 50,000. Between the altitude, the weather, the atmosphere and the hosts’ hard-tackling, high-tempo style, it is just about the toughest test in club rugby. The only European team who have got within a score of beating them since they joined the URC were Edinburgh, who lost by two points in September 2022.

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“Pretoria is 35 degrees, right now, with very high humidity too,” the Bulls prop Khutha Mchunu said at the competition launch, “so yes, it is very different, and will definitely feel it, it’s going to be tough for them.” Given Mchunu was wearing a thick puffer coat and a beanie hat, indoors, he seemed to be struggling to adjust himself. “Yes,” he said with a chuckle, clutching his arms around himself, “in this competition you are playing the elements as much as you are the opposition – one week you can be playing in the heat and humidity in Durban, next week in the wind and rain in London.”

Mchunu, 26, was playing for the Sharks last season but switched in the summer.

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He and the rest of the South Africans are still figuring out the competition. “This is our second season in the Champions Cup,” he said, “so it is still growing on us.” The Bulls were knocked out in the last 16 last time, the Sharks and the Stormers in the quarter‑finals. Mchunu says it was all part of a learning curve. A lot of the younger players in particular didn’t know too much about the competition when they joined it, any more than the average Englishman might about the Currie Cup.

“The first season we didn’t understand the history, the prestige, the aura, the legends who have played in this competition.

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” They know a little more now.

“It’s the best club competition in the world for a reason,” Mchunu said. “We took some lessons from the previous season about what’s required to win. As South Africans, we always believe we can win any game, any weekend, that’s just how we’re bought up, but when you’re playing in the Champions Cup you’re up against the best of the best. Look at Toulouse, who have Dupont and Ntamack; at La Rochelle they have Skelton and Danty; and Leinster have what, 18, 19, 20 internationals in the squad? I mean, how many Premierships have Saracens won?”

It’s six, for the record, plus three Champions Cups.

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“We started to understand all this, and we started to understand what’s required to win,” Mchunu said. “Now we are focused on becoming the first non‑European team to win the cup. We want to do that because it will be a huge part of history. Whoever gets there first will own that honour forever.” For people who take their rugby as seriously as the South Africans do, losing out last time around is all the incentive they need this year. But the has given them another to go with it.

“It gave everyone in the country a boost, including us players, because we’re not just South Africans now, we are world champion South Africans, the first to win four World Cups, and back-to-back champions,” Mchunu said. “It means we carry a responsibility to make sure we make South Africa proud, because we can’t be the best rugby country in the world if our club teams are not performing well too. So there’s an expectation which comes with the title, which is good, it’s another push for us to perform.” These are strange days, but it promises to be a hell of a game.

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