Northern exposure should be welcomed

Playing in the northern hemisphere will provide benefits on and off the field for SA rugby, writes former Springbok captain JEAN DE VILLIERS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

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It’s great to see that the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers have embraced the idea of competing in the Pro Rugby tournament from 2021. South African rugby will benefit from the move on a number of fronts, and I’m sure that the clubs from Ireland, Italy, Wales and Scotland will benefit from competing against our ‘Big Four’ on a regular basis.

The move sparked debate at home and abroad, given that South Africa is trading its place in the Super Rugby tournament for an opportunity in an expanded Pro16 – and perhaps, further down the line, a spot in the Champions Cup.

These changes are both necessary and exciting. It may be difficult to accept that the Super Rugby tournament – and ultimately regular fixtures against top Australian and New Zealand franchises – is a thing of the past. When you consider the pros of heading north, however, you wonder why it didn’t happen sooner.

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From next year, the big South African teams will face off against giants of the north such as Leinster and Munster. Fans will find it easier to follow these clashes, as the time difference between South Africa and Europe is negligible. This may lead to more commercial opportunities, and more sponsors may come on board.

In the past, teams travelled vast distances for tours to Australia and New Zealand. If there was an injury to a player, coaches waited several days for a replacement to arrive from South Africa. Next year, with our teams are competing in Europe, coaches will have the opportunity to fly replacements in within a 24-hour period.

The Springbok coaches will find it easier to monitor a larger group of prospective Test players who are all competing in the same tournament. There are already a number of South African players plying their trade for clubs in Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, and they will enjoy greater exposure in terms of Test selection when competing against countrymen based at the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers.

A number of people have made the point that the introduction of the top South African sides will lift the standard of the competition as a whole. Ireland’s clubs have accounted for 12 of the last 19 titles, with Leinster winning the last three in a row. Perhaps they won’t have everything their own way when our teams enter the tournament.

I was privileged enough to play for Munster in 2009-10. I’m a proud South African and have had so many good experiences while playing for the Stormers and Western Province at Newlands. And yet I will never forget the sight of a packed Thomond Park in Limerick on game days.

I think that we should expect a special atmosphere, regardless of where the big games are played next year.

There are bound to be challenges as the teams adapt to a new format. The European clubs, of course, will have to adapt to flying to South Africa for matches, as opposed to flying short distances between the European countries and cities.

South Africa’s teams will have to develop their squad and tactics to ensure they can excel on the hard grounds of South Africa as well as the soft – and often weather-affected – fields up north.

In future, we may see South African teams competing in the Champions Cup. That feels like a natural progression. I’d love to see our teams going head to head with some of the top teams in Europe. I’m sure there will come a point when the Australian and New Zealand teams realise that they are missing out, and make a move to join the party…

It’s been a difficult year, with the Covid-19 crisis challenging the game like never before and the Springboks finishing the season without having played a Test. 2021 promises to be a watershed, though, with our top franchises making an exciting move to the north and the world champions facing off against the British & Irish Lions.