Former Springbok flanker Schalk Burger says that the South African United Rugby Championship (URC) sides’ exit from the EPCR competitions is a blessing in disguise.
The Bulls lost 33-9 to Toulouse in the Champions Cup round-of-16, with the Sharks succumbing to the same team 54-20 in the quarter-finals.
Burger says that he is disappointed that none of the South African sides are in the semi-finals but added that it allows the teams to focus fully on the URC play-offs.
Blessing in disguise
The defending champions Stormers are ranked second overall on the league table and are already assured of their spot.
Meanwhile, the Bulls and Sharks are in the top eight, and the Lions are three points off a play-off place.
“It’s disappointing we are not in Europe any more, especially how comprehensively our sides lost at the weekend,” Burger said.
“But this might be a bit of a blessing in disguise for our squads because I feared their BKT URC campaigns would have suffered as a consequence if they had got through to the EPCR semi-finals. So maybe this is good for us.
“This actually benefits our squads in terms of the BKT URC. We are a little bit thinner spread than some of the powerhouses up north, and it’s the first year we have done both. Last year, we were privileged where we only had to focus on the BKT URC.”
Travel not to blame for results
The Sharks and Stormers had 24-hour trips to Toulouse and Exeter to feature in the quarter-final, while the Lions had their fair share of travel issues.
The Stormers legend argues that travel can’t be blamed entirely for the performances of the teams.
“The EPCR was a challenge for us. It was something new,” Burger said.
“I think the players were really excited to play in Europe against different opposition they don’t usually play against. I think they really embraced it.
“A lot has been made about the travel, but I don’t think it was an excuse in the Stormers case. They could have flown there by spaceship, and I still think they would have come up short against an Exeter side who bossed the ball. We can’t blame travel for the performance.”
Looking ahead to the weekend’s games, the Sharks face Benetton and the Bulls take on Zebre Parma, with the Lions hosting Leinster and the Stormers going head-to-head with Munster.
“The Bulls are going through a horrid streak under Jake White, so there is a lot of pressure in the camp. The main issue has been defence, but there is quality within that squad,” Burger said.
While he expects the Sharks and Bulls to win this weekend, Burger believes that the Lions won’t have enough to defeat Leinster.
“There is just too much quality in the Leinster side; they are so consistent. They are my favourite side to watch because their emphasis is always on scoring tries,” he said.
“The Lions will have some magnificent moments, but they don’t have enough quality to keep it there for 80 minutes. They will have soft moments and those moments are when Leinster will pounce, so I see the Lions going down.”
Burger does anticipate a tight affair with Munster taking on the Stormers.
“This is a big one. The weather looks set to be perfect for the weekend, and it’s going to be a good crowd,” he said.
“Munster are going to be a force to be reckoned with. They have got a good squad coming up. It’s everyone; it’s hand on deck. The Stormers might be in trouble this weekend.
“I think Munster are going to run us super close. I have got to back the Stormers, but they will be put under pressure, and I have a feeling it’s going to be super tight.”
Asked who he thought would win the competition, the 2007 World Cup winner believes that his former side could reach the final again.
“I think it’s going to be Leinster hosting the final this year. I’d go for the Stormers to make it back-to-back finals, but to fall short in the final,” he added.