Rugby abandoned European expansion and got empty seats in South Africa instead

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With pathways into Romania, Russia, Spain and the like mothballed, the new Champions Cup and Challenge Cup formats get off to an underwhelming start in the Southern Hemisphere

December 11, 2022 9:08 pm(Updated 9:12 pm)

STONEX STADIUM — As three-time winners of the Champions Cup, Sarries lived up to their exalted status, just, with a win over Edinburgh in this season’s opening round, but there is change afoot here, in both the playing style and the wider complexion of a competition that has been given a fascinating reboot.

Saracens’ last appearance at this level was their losing semi-final away to Racing 92 in September 2020, after which they were relegated to the second division and then returned in the Challenge Cup, in which they reached the semi-finals.

Having also played a losing Premiership final against Leicester last June, the club and its main faces, led by director of rugby Mark McCall and captain Owen Farrell, have grafted on a greater urge to pass and move the ball. It brings a risk of possession lost in wide positions and more difficult-to-manage ruck situations.

Throw in a referee such as Georgia’s Nika Amashukeli on Sunday, who wanted a squeaky-clean breakdown, and it led to a slew of penalties for Edinburgh’s dead-eyed Argentina kicker Emiliano Boffelli to keep pinging points. Farrell may have felt he’d seen plenty of Boffelli when the Puma collected 25 points in beating England at the start of the autumn series that ended with Eddie Jones losing his job.

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Farrell is the incumbent England captain and he told BT Sport: “For someone to get that [sacked], it’s everybody’s job that’s got them that in the first place. So we’re disappointed. Eddie’s been a big part of our careers, of my career, [so] I’m disappointed it’s finished like it has. He’s always been a brilliant coach for me, and for that I’m massively thankful.”

Edinburgh, who have a semi-final in 2012 as their best effort in Europe, led 16-12 at half-time but their line-out wobbled badly in the second period, they had yellow cards to front-rowers Stuart McInally and WP Nel, and it tied in with Saracens using the boot to ratchet up the pressure. A box kick by Ivan van Zyl, a couple of steeplers by Farrell and a beauty of a left-footed dab by Elliot Daly for Alex Lewington to score one of Saracens’ four tries – these were old reliable rabbits still ready to be pulled from the hat.

Saracens next travel to Lyon while Edinburgh host Castres and the Scottish club’s head coach Mike Blair said: “We’re frustrated we didn’t get over the line but a point at Saracens isn’t too bad an outcome.”

Saracens' Maro Itoje wins a line-out during the Heineken Champions Cup match at the StoneX Stadium, London. Picture date: Sunday December 11, 2022. PA Photo. See PA story RUGBYU Saracens. Photo credit should read: Zac Goodwin/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only, no commercial use without prior consent from rights holder.
Maro Itoje collects a line-out at Saracens’ frosty StoneX Stadium (Photo: PA)

Given the missed opportunity when Saracens led 23-19 and Edinburgh’s Damien Hoyland almost set up a try with an interception of a Farrell pass, Blair might justifiably have been grumpier.

Both Saracens and Edinburgh know what it is to be boosted by South African playing talent, and now the Boks are around in larger numbers, as the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers have joined a competition that used to nominally be the sole preserve of the Europeans.

Rugby is unheard of in Durban in December but Africa entered Europe on Saturday, amid temperatures of 30 degrees by the Indian Ocean, as Harlequins pitched up with their running game from the 22, and lost 39-31 to the Sharks – Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth and all.

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - DECEMBER 10: Eben Etzebeth of the Cell C Sharks during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Cell C Sharks and Harlequins at Hollywoodbets Kings Park on December 10, 2022 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Steve Haag/Gallo Images)
There were plenty of stars on show in Durban but few fans (Photo: Getty)

The T-shirted crowd frolicked in the pool (presumably unheated) at one end of a fourth-fifths empty Kings Park. Meanwhile, up, or is it down, in Johannesburg, the stadium for Lions vs Dragons in the Challenge Cup appeared to be five-fifths empty.

The move has been driven by broadcast money in an expansion plan that started with South Africans joining the URC and maybe one day it will include the Six Nations. As the TV cameras flipped in a flick of a switch to show the white frost of freezing north London, it emphasised the contrast in weather, yes, but also if you thought about it, the implicitly abandoned former desire of European clubs to open a pathway into Romania, Russia, Spain and the like.

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