A column by former England and British and Irish Lions flyhalf Stuart Barnes on the eve of the Investec Champions Cup clash at Loftus between the Vodacom Bulls and Saracens has neatly encapsulated why it is so important for the home team to win.
Writing in The Times, Barnes wrote that beating the Bulls at altitude would trump any of Saracens’ Champions Cup titles (they’ve won the competition three times).
“If Saracens start their European Cup campaign this weekend with a win, it would constitute one of their finest European efforts. The English club have won the trophy on three occasions but an away game against an in-form Bull team is something else again. It’s a true test,” he said.
To some that might seem a bit over the top as while the Bulls have won all their games at home this season with some ease, Loftus hasn’t exactly always been an impregnable fortress to visiting teams in recent seasons. The DHL Stormers, who hail of course from the coast, having won their last two Vodacom United Rugby Championship games there.
But Barnes does make a good point if you look at how overseas teams have fared at Loftus since South African rugby switched to the northern hemisphere competitions. There is a frontier that needs crossing by Saracens, England’s champion team, and at this time when the European media seems so divided over the South African inclusion in Europe’s elite competition, the longer the Loftus aura can be retained so much the better for this country’s participation.
Sports people need challenges, and English lock Maro Itoje summed it up well earlier this week - “The more quality in the competition, the better. It’s a great occasion and something we’re looking forward to. We are excited.”
It’s a night game, which at Loftus means it isn’t quite as difficult a challenge for Saracens from a weather and altitude perspective as an afternoon game, such as the one the Sharks played last week, is for a visiting team. But this opening game of the competition is still a formidable obstacle for the three time champions and it is incumbent on the Bulls to ensure that a visit to their corral continues to be seen like that.
HOME GROUND ADVANTAGE ALL IMPORTANT
Home ground advantage is even more significant in the Champions Cup than other competitions and that was one of the learnings for the South African teams in their first season of participation. None of the Bulls, Stormers or Sharks lost a home game last season. And there were only two away wins for South African teams - the Stormers beat the now defunct London Irish at their former home ground shared with English football team Brentford in a game where the hosts were down to 13 men at the end, and the Sharks scored a good win against the Bordeaux Begles.
Which sums up why in this first weekend of the competition, of the two South African teams in the Champions Cup, it is the Bulls who are under the initial pressure. The Stormers are heading to Welford Road to play a powerful Leicester Tigers team more in hope than expectation as much of their focus is on next week’s home game against the reigning champions, LaRochelle.
Saracens travel to the Bulls as two heavyweights clash for the first time on Saturday afternoon.
New signing Logovi'i Mulipola has joined the team for their trip to Pretoria, while Owen Farrell is set for his first appearance since announcing his decision to step away from international rugby.