Martin Anayi, the chief executive officer of the United Rugby Championship, asserts that South African teams have made a significant impact in the Champions Cup, and there is no question that they deserve to be in the competition.
If the opening rounds of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup are any indication, South African franchises have made a tremendous mark in the early going.
And according to the chief executive officer of the URC, Anayi, there is no argument that they do not deserve a position in the two championships.
The URC has been encouraged 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 that participated in the two European tournaments advanced.
In addition, all five South African franchises qualified for the playoffs in their respective leagues, including the Cheetahs.
This offers the URC a higher participation rate in the knockout stages than either the English Premiership or the French Top 14, providing some spice to the competition between the three leagues.
Anayi is delighted with the progress thus far; the URC has surpassed all benchmarks for spectator attendance and broadcast viewership, and the tournament continues to grow.
Add to that the success of the two formerly European contests, and the future of the URC appears promising.
“For us, we had seen it in the URC, so we knew it was coming, but it’s always wonderful to read about it. There was an article on BBC this morning discussing how wonderful the participation of South African teams in the Champions’ Cup and Challenge Cup has been,” Anayi explained.
Eight of our teams have qualified for the round of 16 in the Champions Cup, and 15 of 16 have qualified for the knockout stages in both tournaments. And all South African teams, including the Cheetahs, have advanced. I’m pleased with that.”
It is clearly evident that the addition of South African teams has boosted depth in the URC, hence making all teams stronger.
“As a result of the influx of South African teams – and hopefully vice versa – the level of competitiveness has increased, as has the depth of our squads.
“We’ve seen sides like the Sharks virtually defeat Leinster away from home despite not selecting their strongest team. We are beginning to observe that when the finest teams are on the field, the competition is truly of the highest caliber.
“What we’re seeing in the tournament, the depth being developed by each side, is the ‘Any Given Sunday’ mentality of depth in the competition and peril from one game to the next. This expansion into Europe has been a delight to observe.
“What you’re seeing now are teams who have not been on a winning streak in the league, such as Ospreys and Scarlets winning away in Montpellier and Leicester. Scarlets have gone undefeated in the group stage; we’ve also seen Cardiff put together a tremendous run. When they bring their success in these two events back to their league play, it can only be a good thing.
That you may pick up form in the cup if you don’t have it in the league, or vice versa, is one of the things I enjoy most about having the league and cup play the way they do. That is a fantastic part of any successful competition series.”
While there may have been initial mistrust, Anayi feels that the performances of South African franchises have transformed this attitude and will continue to do so in the future.
“Because I’ve gone through this with the URC entry, I knew once we sent teams to South Africa – just watch their social media – that they were having a terrific time. As soon as they return home, they share their optimism with others. I anticipated this outcome.
You hope that South African sides will be competitive at home against any opponent, but what we’ve observed is that South African teams are highly competitive on the road. The fact that Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth stayed more than an hour to sign autographs at the Stoop is also a linking factor.
“It highlights the fact that it is no longer European; this is Champions Cup rugby, pitting the best teams against the best, and we are receiving that.” Nobody on earth can convince me that the four major South African franchises do not earn their place at the table.”
This weekend, the URC returns as teams from the five nations continue to compete for qualification to next year’s competition.