Bulls director of rugby Jake White has compared playing in the Champions Cup to Test rugby ahead of his team’s debut in the club competition against Lyon in Pretoria on Saturday.
The 58-year-old is speaking from experience as he was South Arica’s head coach between 2004 and 2007 when he guided the Springboks to their second Rugby World Cup victory, in France.
Similar to Champions League football
The Bulls are set to take on Lyon and Exeter Chiefs this month, while the Stormers face Clermont Auvergne and London Irish, with the Sharks meeting Harlequins and Bordeaux-Begles.
The aforementioned South African sides, along with the Lions, competed in the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC) competition during the 2021/22 season and the Stormers were crowned champions when they beat the Bulls in a thrilling final in Cape Town earlier this year.
While taking on Europe’s leading clubs is a new challenge for the South African sides, White is no stranger to it as he coached Top 14 outfit Montpellier between 2014 and 2017 and guided that club to victory in Europe’s second-tier Challenge Cup tournament in 2016.
“We will be coming up against teams packed with internationals,” he said.
“European teams do not just draw from the player pool of their country – they have stars from all the top rugby nations.
“I fear South Africans are a little naive about what lies ahead. Champions Cup teams are much stronger than those in the URC.
“They boast packs that weigh more than a thousand kilograms; they have brilliant backs. I think we are in for a bit of a wake-up call from this weekend.”
White says that the South African sides have struggled with the refereeing interpretations in Europe, something that he believes will also be a factor in the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup, which the Lions and Cheetahs will be competing in.
“French Top 14 referees interpret the laws a certain way, while their counterparts in England, Ireland and Scotland sometimes see things differently,” he said.
“Any coach in the European competitions understands that. The reality is that you just have to get on with the match.”
Weather also troublesome
Weather can also be an annoyance for South African teams on their travels in Europe, although competing in the URC has helped players to adapt.
“You play on a bone-hard pitch in 30 degrees (Celsius) heat one weekend and experience biting cold, fierce wind and torrential rain seven days later,” said Bulls fly-half Chris Smith.