Bulls coach Jake White is hoping that Qatar Airways’ three-year sponsorship agreement with the United Rugby Championship (URC) and South African Rugby will end what he sees as a false vision sold to South African players and coaches.
The fact that players would not be subjected to the arduous travel requirements that plagued local teams’ Super Rugby participation was one of the major selling points to franchises for joining the northern hemisphere in late 2020.
However, in a seemingly innocuous but startling revelation, the former Springbok coach suggested that the commercial partnership, announced on Tuesday, became necessary because there was little material difference in the ease of travel.
In fact, it began to deteriorate because SA Rugby Travel, the governing body’s official travel agency and central overseas booking agent for the franchises, was forced to book economy class flights with multiple stopovers due to cost constraints in a severely disrupted air travel market as a result of Covid-19.
The travel was one area where we needed to improve. Flying around the world to get to Europe isn’t ideal, and doing so in economy class isn’t either,” White said when asked about the lessons learned in the tournament’s inaugural edition.
“One of the selling points to the players was that once we moved on from Super Rugby, even with business class to Sydney, you wouldn’t be that far away from home all that often.” Even overnight flights were discussed.”
The pandemic put an end to such lofty ideals, especially after the UK controversially placed South Africa on its red list in December following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
South Africa’s participation in the Champions and Challenge Cups, combined with a normalised URC schedule that has always been defined by more one-off trips – just ask the Cheetahs and Southern Kings in the PRO14 – means that ease of travel is now critical.
SA Rugby president Mark Alexander was in Qatar’s capital earlier this week to commemorate the partnership, which sees the airline become the official carrier of the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers, Lions, and Cheetahs for the European tournament in particular.
It also stated that all-inclusive travel packages will be available for fans in the near future.
“We know the schedule is what it is, but we can go to Exeter for the Champions Cup one week, come back for a home game, and then fly back to Europe for a URC game.” “It’s a problem if you’re flying all over with different stopovers in economy class,” White explained.
“Hopefully, it has been addressed with Qatar’s sponsorship.” The tournament was not sold to us as coaches and payers as a way to get to London via, via, via. And I’m sure the expectations were the same for fans who had the means to attend the occasional away game.”
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