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Patched-up Bulls face Northampton after travel chaos row hogs agenda
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Patched-up Bulls face Northampton after travel chaos row hogs agenda

On paper the Champions Cup quarter-final between Northampton and the Bulls from Pretoria is a rugby fantasist’s dream come true. The Premiership leaders against the only South African side to claim a Super Rugby title. The 21-year-old fly-half Fin Smith pulling strings in the face of meaty forwards. Franklin’s Gardens under lights. This should be club rugby at its best.

In reality the spectacle has been marred by a logistical nightmare that has jeopardised the sense of occasion. Jake White, the Bulls coach who was in charge of the Springboks when they lifted the 2007 World Cup, has left 13 of his regular starters at home. World champions Willie le Roux, Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse, as well as fellow Boks Wilco Louw, Marcell Coetzee, Gerhard Steenkamp and Johan Goosen will be watching from the Highveld. The official line is that many are nursing injuries with White also emphasising the need to rotate his squad. But another explanation, one that White dismissed on Friday, has garnered attention.

This match is wedged between two fixtures in Pretoria. Last Saturday the Bulls beat Lyon 59-19. Next week they play Munster in the United Rugby Championship. Any player involved in all three would have to travel more than 16,000 miles in a fortnight.

White would not be the first coach to select what might be perceived as a weakened team for a European away trip. But given the controversy over the inclusion of South African sides in the URC and continental competitions, he has been accused of undermining the integrity of one of rugby’s grandest events.

“This is a wonderful competition and it’s something we want to win,” White said, pointing out that six of the selected group have played in Super Rugby finals with eight represented in the squad that beat Leinster in Dublin two years ago. “One of the things I learned last year was I didn’t rotate my squad enough. It’s got nothing to do with Munster.”

The Bulls’ scrum-half Embrose Papier passes the ballView image in fullscreen

White refused to comment on a statement issued by SA Rugby which read as a rebuke to accusations made by the Bulls coach. “It’s not ideal,” White said on Tuesday. “I’ve said it before that if you are in a high-performance sport and you want to be competitive, there aren’t many sporting teams that would leave on eight different airlines on a Tuesday evening to play a Saturday night game.”

Leaving earlier was not an option as the Bulls had to wait 24 hours after their Lyon win for the result of the Northampton v Munster match before making the requisite arrangements. A Munster victory would have seen the Bulls host the Irish province. Instead they had to organise a hasty trip to the Midlands.

Given the uncertainty, booking 38 flights was impossible as no airline was willing to underwrite the potential loss. By the time 28 players and six support staff boarded separate flights on Tuesday evening – with one cohort arriving in London via Zurich, Doha and then Dubai – SA Rugby had spent about £175,500.

This all adds up to a side captained by former Wasps flanker Nizaam Carr starting as underdogs, though they will receive no sympathy from Saints.

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Northampton, champions in 2000, have not progressed beyond the last eight since 2011, when they were beaten by Leinster in the final. Phil Dowson has named a strong team with 21-year-old George Hendy – who came off the bench to score two match-winning tries against Munster last week – starting on the wing.

Four other former champions are in action this weekend with a repeat of the last two finals taking place on Saturday. Leinster have named six forwards on their bench in their quest for revenge over La Rochelle at the Aviva Stadium. In each of the past two years, Ronan O’Gara’s heavies have outmuscled Ireland’s most successful province and will look to do so again.

Earlier in the day freewheeling Bordeaux Bègles once again host a London club. Last week they tore Saracens to shreds, scoring six tries in a 45-12 romp. Now they will take aim at an equally adventurous Harlequins. On Sunday Exeter travel to Toulouse who have Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack partnered in the half-backs.

Only one of the eight matches in the round of 16 was won by the away side. Last season not a single visitor triumphed in 14 knockout ties. Even without the problems faced by the Bulls, winning on the road remains this competition’s toughest challenge.

Source: theguardian.com