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Rugby | SuperSport Rugby Challenge

Griquas © Gallo Images

The smaller unions fight back

With the Tafel Lager Griquas, the Hino Valke and the Steval Pumas having all won the competition in its guise as the Vodacom Cup, the SuperSport Rugby Challenge – which begins this weekend – is seen as a chance for the so-called smaller unions to get their own back on the bigger unions.

The main reason proffered for the SuperSport Rugby Challenge presenting an opportunity and a playground for the cannon fodder to fight back is how disjointed the teams linked to Super Rugby franchises and, lately, Pro 14 teams, can be in their efforts, owing to competing on different fronts.

A great example from last year’s Rugby Challenge tournament was how Western Province found themselves having to recruit a player from club rugby a day before they were due to play in the Oudtshoorn Festival because the Stormers had had a last-minute injury crisis.

By contrast, the smaller unions tend to go into the competition with settled, full-strength Currie Cup sides which are not playing in another competitions, while the bigger unions aren’t always sure who they’ll be able to call on from week to week as players returning from injuries can also be foisted on them.

But the idea that the franchise teams are at a disadvantage was rejected by Peter Engledow and Brent Janse van Rensburg, who coach Griquas and the Pumas respectively, rather painting a picture of a tournament whose competitiveness defies lazy stereotypes.

“If you look at the sides which made the semifinals in last year’s tournament, a lot of those (franchise) teams used players who had been involved in Super Rugby,” said Engledow. “We’ve got the Cheetahs and the Sharks in our pool (central) and you never know how many of them will be released to play against us, so it’s not an easy competition for us.

“They are bigger because they can buy the best players in the country. If you look at the Lions team we beat in the semifinals of this tournament, it was roughly the same team we played in the Currie Cup, and they beat us. The competition is really strong and we’ve got some really good coaches.”

Janse van Rensburg sang from the same hymn sheet: “I’m always very cautious of questions like that because in sport anything can happen. The Super Rugby teams have strength in depth and the guys who play against us train with them and have a synergy which sees them playing a similar game.

“One could argue that they can be disjointed at times but they are in the pipeline of the Super Rugby sides and play to a synergy, and those players want to prove that they should be playing Super Rugby. When they play us they throw the kitchen sink at us to prove that they are worth higher honours.”

To illustrate his point about how tough things can get in the competition. Janse van Rensburg pointed to his team’s home and away fixtures against the Vodacom Blue Bulls and the Xerox Golden Lions in the north pool last year.

“We beat the Bulls twice in very close games and lost twice to the Lions in what was also close games. It shows that on the day anything can happen.”

That said, the so-called smaller teams aren’t going into this year’s competition with a sense of inevitability, according to Engledow: “It’s a great opportunity for us to test the depth of our squad and to give our younger players time to develop.

“But the difference for us is that from the outset we want to win it. It helps our Currie Cup preparations but at the same time we’re trying to win it."


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