South African teams will be able to take part in the European Champions Cup as early as next year following the launch of the United Rugby Championship in place of the Pro14.
The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers will join 12 teams from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales in the revamped URC next season with at least one of the former Super Rugby franchises guaranteed to qualify for Europe’s elite competition for the 2022-23 campaign.
The competition format will see four regional pools of four, with teams playing each other home and away, plus one fixture against each of the other 12 sides. The top eight teams in a single table after those 18 regular season encounters will then enter a straight knockout phase.
The highest-ranked team in each of the four groups will earn a Champions Cup place for the following season with the remaining four spots going to the four highest-placed league teams who have not already qualified. That paves the way for South African teams to come up against Premiership opposition in Europe – a move welcomed by the Sale and Springboks scrum-half Faf de Klerk.
“I think it could be great, getting that experience of playing in different countries, in different weather conditions, it’s going to put the players through different tests they haven’t faced before,” he said. “It’ll be really tough, it’ll be different and it may take a few games, or seasons, to really get the gist of the whole thing. But it’s a real step forward for South Africa rugby.”
The URC is set to begin in September without 21 rounds of matches in total and no clashes scheduled with autumn internationals or the Six Nations. The Springboks are due to be in Rugby Championship action when the URC kicks off, however. Indeed, the new URC structure means South Africa internationals could face 11-month seasons with only February off.
South Africa last year announced their commitment to the Rugby Championship through to 2030, thereby ending speculation they were due to join the Six Nations, even if the URC would appear to make that a more appealing proposition. “South African rugby has for many years imagined a future aligned with northern hemisphere rugby,” said the South Africa Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux. “This is a watershed moment in South African rugby history, opening new doors and heralding a new and exciting era for our sport.”
Meanwhile, Sale will be without AJ MacGinty for their return to Exeter in the Premiership semi-finals on Saturday after he suffered a significant knee injury at Sandy Park last weekend. Alex Sanderson hopes Akker van der Merwe recovers in time but acknowledged the loss of fly-half MacGinty, who has been in fine form this season, was a blow. “Captain America, that’s what the lads are calling him,” said Sanderson. “He’s been absolutely mercurial, he’s been brilliant for us, he’s played some of his best rugby and he’ll be sorely missed.”
The British & Irish Lions have started receiving their second Covid-19 vaccinations at their training camp in Jersey. A number of players and staff visited a medical centre on Tuesday as part of the ambition to have all members of the touring party fully inoculated by the time they arrive in South Africa.