South Africa’s switch to the northern hemisphere and to the Vodacom United Rugby Championship has mostly been positive, but there is a teething problem that is becoming a more and more significant factor for the local teams.
When this country left Super Rugby, the selling point for a switch to northern hemisphere competition, apart from the more favourable time zoning, was the relatively short overnight flight between this country and Europe.
A direct flight from Cape Town to London’s Heathrow Airport takes just 12 hours, and you can chop an hour and a half of that for a flight from Johannesburg. Most if not all flights are at night. You go to sleep after take-off, you wake up over the white cliffs of Dover. That’s definitely an easier undertaking than flying from Cape Town to Dunedin on New Zealand’s south island.
But, due mostly to financial considerations implicit in staging a competition that encompasses two hemispheres and entails so much regular inter-continental travel, the South African coaches and players aren’t experiencing what they thought they had signed up for. And increasingly, it is becoming a talking point among them and a source of frustration.
STORMERS TAKE MORE THAN 40 HOURS TO GET TO GLASGOW
The DHL Stormers left Cape Town on Monday night for Glasgow, where they play their next URC game on Sunday. At mid-morning on Wednesday, well over 40 hours after departure, they were still in transit at London’s Heathrow Airport waiting for a connecting flight to the Scottish city.
Apparently, some of the players, particularly the bigger ones who have been forced into cramped economy-class seats on the long journey from Cape Town via Johannesburg and Doha, were visibly angry and frustrated. For it wasn’t a once-off. It happens a couple of times in the space of a couple of weeks now.
The Stormers flew back from France, where they played their first Heineken Champions Cup game, in mid-December. It’s just half a month later that they were on the road, or more specifically, in the air again, crossing the equator. They return home to Cape Town from their current trip to play a Heineken Cup game two weeks from now, but they are scheduled to head back to the northern hemisphere to play Ulster the following week.
For that, they face the 40+ hour outward journey they have on this trip, the only difference being that this time they will be ending it with a bus trip from Dublin to Belfast. Stormers coach John Dobson, like his Vodacom Bulls counterpart Jake White did for his team’s recent away Heineken Champions Cup clash with Exeter Chiefs, might end up having to send a second-string team to Belfast for that game. He may have no choice as an important URC derby against the Cell C Sharks in Durban is scheduled for the next weekend.
White took some flak for sending his second stringers to England in December, but he had no choice. He was right when he said, given the fact all journeys are via Doha, meaning a minimum of 26 hours travel, that the turnaround between that game and the derby against the Stormers was too short. The Bulls played Exeter on the Saturday, meaning a Sunday departure for the long flight home, and the Stormers the following Friday.
BULLS, SHARKS AND LIONS IN SAME BOAT
The Stormers’ experience is far from unique. It applies to all South African teams. The Bulls also had to put up with a long journey that started on the New Year long weekend. They play against the Welsh club, the Dragons, in Newport, on Friday night. They had to fly home from Durban, where they played the Sharks, on New Year’s Day, before leaving on Monday morning for the United Kingdom, for Friday’s game against the Dragons.
They didn’t have the extra flight leg added on that the Stormers did from London to Glasgow, but they did have a long bus journey from Heathrow to Wales to follow on from the torturous long flight from Johannesburg via Doha.
The Bulls face a lot of travel this month. White says he has only nine training days on his schedule for January. The rest of the time is either dedicated to travel or devoted to recovery from travel.
The Sharks play Connacht in Galway on Saturday night. There are no direct flights from London or Dublin to Galway, and their outward flight would have been Durban/Johannesburg/Doha/Dublin. The Sharks will also have to undertake a long bus trip once their flight ends, estimated to be four or five hours, or they can factor in an extra flying leg to Shannon, where there is an airport, and a slightly shorter bus journey.
For the Emirates Lions, who play in Limerick on Friday night against Munster, the journey isn’t quite as long, but only by a fraction. And for them, as with the Bulls, the turnaround is short since their New Year’s Eve clash with the Stormers in Cape Town. The Welsh clubs are weak, but a potential ambush does await the Bulls given the short turnaround.
BIG CATTLE SHOULDN’T BE FLYING CATTLE CLASS
An added curve-ball being faced by players in the URC/Champions Cup is that while in Super Rugby most, if not all, flights to New Zealand and Australia were done in business class, now everything is done in economy class. To those who don’t travel often, the response to that might be “So what?”
But flying long distance as regularly as the South African players are currently is debilitating, and you may have to have Marvin Orie’s height, or Frans Malherbe’s build, to fully appreciate how cramped it must feel to be shoe-horned into seat 41C surrounded by equally big human beings. And they do it not just as a once-off, but twice in both directions in the space of a month!
The number of times South African teams have to travel across the equator in a season will, if it isn’t already, put them at a similar disadvantage to the one that was complained about during the Super Rugby era. The overseas teams only come to South Africa once a season, maybe twice if they end up playing a knock-out game here.
The costs are prohibitive and an obvious stumbling block, but one helpful solution would be for what was thought to be the initial plan to be engaged, namely that the South African teams fly directly overnight, and preferably business class, from their home city to Heathrow when they are playing in the UK or to Charles de Gaulle when playing in France.
The financial implications of making that change will be difficult to deal with, but if the situation isn’t sorted out more players might be tempted into doing what Springbok captain Siya Kolisi has just done by opting to continue their careers with a club based in Europe or the UK, where the time spent away from home and family because of travel is far less.