Bulls coach Jake White all but admitted on Friday that it will be a long shot for his team to beat Leinster, symbols of all that is strong in European rugby, when they meet in their opening United Rugby Championship match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday.
White though added that it is a lengthy competition and whatever happens, South Africa’s champions will know how close they are to competing for honours up north.
Leinster won the last four editions of the Pro14 before the rebranding with the arrival of the four South African franchises, and they are also perennial contenders for the Champions Cup, Europe’s premier competition, having reached the knockout stages in 12 of the last 13 years and winning the title five times.
“It’s all an unknown for us but a great opportunity,” White said.
“Leinster are like the Barcelona of rugby and there’s not much I have to say to the team about playing them. It will be a great benchmark of where we are early on, it will be a huge test coming up against guys who have played 30-40 Tests for Ireland and European finals. They are by far the leaders in European rugby.
“We have guys who have played against the same teams in the Currie Cup, which is a significant difference. So it’s going to be a massive fixture for us but it is a long tournament – we could play 21 more games.
“So one thing we can learn from Leinster is that it’s not so much about the first game, they have often been slow starters, it’s about how you adapt and evolve through the competition.”
The Sharks, bridesmaids to the Bulls since rugby returned after Covid, have a similarly dauting task as they take on Munster, perennial runners-up to Leinster recently, on Saturday night.
One gets the feeling the Sharks legged it to Ireland with some relief as their last match was yet another defeat to the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld, the biggest margin of defeat in Currie Cup final history.
But the Sharks are traditionally good travellers and coach Sean Everitt knows they will be playing finals rugby once again, rather than the running game they would probably prefer.
“Munster are a well-drilled team who do not give you much, so it’s going to be about execution on the day,” said Everitt.
“Johann van Graan is a well-organised coach, he’s been involved at the highest level with the Springboks and has brought a style to Munster that is very difficult to play against – they suffocate and strangle you. They are a well-oiled machine.
“Munster defend really well and have a strong kicking game – they want to trap you into playing in the wrong areas. So it’s going to be tough for us, but we are focused on what we need to do to succeed. We need to manage the game better and be more disciplined in that regard.”
The Stormers, given their recent troubles, will be grateful that they start against Italian opposition in the form of Benetton Treviso.
But Treviso were the team that destroyed the Bulls in the Rainbow Cup final and, given the Western Cape team’s struggles against their arch-rivals recently, they will have their hands full in northern Italy.