Euro rugby: Further glory winks invitingly for SA stars

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Rynhardt Elstadt in action for Toulouse during a Champions Cup game.
Rynhardt Elstadt in action for Toulouse during a Champions Cup game.
David Rogers/Getty Images

That trophy-winning feeling ... a solid handful of South Africans based abroad savoured it in last weekend’s respective European Challenge Cup and Champions Cup showpiece fixtures.

Springboks Cheslin Kolbe and Rynhardt Elstadt were the biggest beneficiaries, after aiding Toulouse's 22-17 victory in the top-tier Champions Cup final against co-French outfit La Rochelle at Twickenham last Saturday, while the night before a phalanx of fellow-Boks were on the winning Montpellier side as they pipped Leicester Tigers at the same venue to lift the next-level-down but still prestigious Challenge Cup.

The relevant “Saffers” there included Jan Serfontein, Johan Goosen, Bismarck du Plessis, Cobus Reinach and Handre Pollard, among others.

But further champagne celebrations remain very much within the grasp of other household names from our shores as the European club season comes to its climax over the next few weeks.

The English Premiership, for example, has three full rounds of ordinary season left, beginning this weekend, and SA involvement in the tussle for knockout berths remains prolific.

Bristol Bears, with a formidable eight-point cushion at the top, and 76 in total at this stage, look firm favourites for best seeding ahead of the semi-finals, but the battle for the next three precious berths is tenser, with Exeter Chiefs (Jannes Kirsten, Jacques Vermeulen) lying second on 68 points, Sale Sharks (massive SA cupboard including Dan, Jean-Luc and Robert du Preez, Coenie Oosthuizen, Cobus Wiese, Jono Ross and Faf de Klerk) next on 64 and Harlequins (Wilco Louw, Andre Esterhuizen, captain Stephan Lewies and Tyrone Green) fourth on 61.

That quartet seem likeliest qualifiers, considering that Northampton Saints, just below the most treasured zone in fifth, are 11 points adrift of making the cut and a near-miracle needed to sneak in.

There’s a key match-up later on Friday (20:45 SA time, live on SS Variety1) as Sale host the log-leading Bristol.

Monitors of the SA contingent in England should also not forget the situation in the second-division RFU Championship, where Saracens (Vincent Koch, Michael Rhodes) require a bonus-point home win over lowly Hartpury - seemingly well within their grasp - on Saturday to nudge out current leaders Ealing Trailfinders to top-placed finish on the table.

Those two have already qualified, anyway, for the two-leg final (12 and 19 June) to determine which outfit earns all-important promotion to the Premiership.

In the PRO14 Rainbow Cup, which continues this weekend despite the bye week in the SA version, much interest surrounds whether Italian surprise packages Benetton - the only unbeaten side so far - can maintain their form.

The side led by former Stormers/WP scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage and also featuring compatriot hooker Corniel Els and locks Eli Snyman and Irne Herbst, are at home to Irish outfit Connacht on Saturday (SS Rugby, 18:15).

A further incentive for them to maintain their lofty status was the confirmation that a “unifying” final between the best northern and southern hemisphere finishers in the respective Rainbow Cups will be contested at their Treviso headquarters on 19 June, regardless of the contestants in it.

In France, meanwhile, the domestic Top 14 competition is headed for a pulsating finish with two rounds of ordinary season remaining ... and real claustrophobia at the top of the log.

Kolbe, Elstadt and company with Toulouse, bidding for an illustrious “double” of big honours this season after their Champions Cup success, will guarantee top spot if they win both remaining fixtures with bonus points - they entertain Clermont on Saturday.

But any slip-up could be pounced on by La Rochelle, who lost to them in the London showpiece, and Bordeaux, locked together on 72 points and a miserly one adrift of Toulouse.

La Rochelle’s South African contingent is headed by Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule, while Bordeaux have Joseph Dweba and Jandre Marais on their books.

A top-two finish is the most coveted in France, because that pair bypass a fatiguing quarter-final ... and into automatic home semis slots.

*The Japanese Top League, which once again featured its own generous share of South Africans, came to a close with last weekend’s final between Panasonic Wild Knights and Suntory Sungoliath, won by the former 31-26 but with no players from our climes featuring in the occasion.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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