‘It’s not a level playing field’: South African warning despite Challenge Cup victory

Sharks head coach John Plumtree before the Challenge Cup final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Head coach John Plumtree, whose Sharks became the first South African team to win a European club competition - Reuters/John Sibley

Sharks head coach John Plumtree delivered an ominous warning for European rivals of South African sides in the Challenge and Champions Cups, insisting that the competitions were not yet a level playing field despite his side making history.

A dominant performance from a pack spearheaded by Springboks laid the foundation for a 36-22 victory over Gloucester, with the scoreline flattering the Premiership side due to two late consolation tries.

It was the first triumph for a South African franchise in their second season of competing in both competitions run by European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), and qualified the Durban outfit for the Champions Cup in 2024-25.

Plumtree said that EPCR tournaments would be “the best in the world” should administrative tweaks allow for less time on the road. The Sharks played a ‘home’ semi-final against Clermont at the Twickenham Stoop earlier this month.

“This is not an easy competition for South African teams at all,” Plumtree explained. “There is a lot of travelling.

“For me, it’s not high performance right now. We’re competing well, but there are a few things that need to be ironed out in terms of levelling it up a little bit.

“This is our fourth trip up here this year and we’ve been away from home for close to three months. That’s not a level playing field, so they need to look at how they can make this competition better. I think it’s going to be the best competition in the world.

“For me, now, it’s better than Super Rugby, and I’ve been involved in that for a long time, but there are logistical things that need to be sorted out and hopefully that is in the next year or two.”

Eben Etzebeth, superb at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, suggested that Sharks’ achievement ranked third in his career behind South Africa’s back-to-back World Cup wins in 2019 and 2023, describing it as “by far my best experience at club level”.

The 32-year-old lock agreed with George Skivington, the Gloucester head coach, that the game represented a best performance of the season for the Sharks, who are languishing towards the bottom of the United Rugby Championship (URC) table thanks to 13 losses from 17 fixtures.

Sharks' Eben Etzebeth after the Challenge Cup final against Gloucester
Sharks' Eben Etzebeth was one of the outstanding players of Friday's Challenge Cup final - PA/Adam Davy

Plumtree, previously an assistant coach with both Ireland and his native New Zealand, will welcome some fine signings to the Sharks next season, including Trevor Nyakane, the Racing 92 prop who was at Tottenham to support his future colleagues, as well as former Harlequins centre André Esterhuizen and Leinster lock Jason Jenkins. For a gruelling schedule, Plumtree argued, such depth and quality will be vital.

“At the start of the season when I came over, the team was disconnected,” he added. “The culture was poor, we had a poor environment. It took a while to sort it out. But now the team is connected, the players love each other.

“My job is to keep building. We’ve got some quality players coming in and a couple of juniors coming through. Our squad will be stronger and it will need to be because we need two strong squads to compete in the Champions Cup and the URC, because these guys can’t play 28 or 30 games a year.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there and I’m lucky that I had an owner in Marco Massotti who’s determined to make the Sharks really good again but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Gloucester face up to an important summer after falling short of a cup double. Defeat was more galling because of how the Challenge Cup had been prioritised over league commitments, a strategy that brought about a 90-0 loss to Northampton a fortnight ago. Without sugarcoating the frustrating aspects of a tumultuous campaign, Skivington praised the persistence of Gloucester’s players and staff.

“I’m proud of the group and actually proud of everyone in the building that, once we made a plan, that we stuck to it,” he said.

“We’ve fallen short of getting a second trophy, which is gutting, but I think we’ve shown that when we knuckle down and commit to something, we’re really good. It will be a season of proper lows and proper highs. But we haven’t got too many gripes about how we’ve lost today.”

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