The four weeks they have already experienced, coupled with what they learned about a possible shift in global rugby power during the break that followed, should mean the South African teams will take a different perspective into the restart of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship compared to what they started with.
When the local teams started out in the URC they wouldn’t quite have known what to expect. The Vodacom Bulls had been issued what appeared to be a warning call to teams from this country when they were comprehensively outplayed in the Rainbow Cup final in Treviso in June, but that was the only game a South African team played against an overseas team and could have been an aberration.
The wake-up call gathered momentum quickly, though, once the URC started, with the Lions’ win over Parma Zebre in Italy being the only success of the opening weekend. Since then, there has been a steady improvement and promise of a quick upward learning curve, but nonetheless the message has been a clear one – this is a tough competition and a massive challenge for both coaches and players given the varied opposition and playing styles, not to mention the conditions and refereeing variations between the hemispheres.
But one thing remained constant of the first four weeks, and it was confirmation of what everyone knew already – the Irish teams will be the ones to beat, particularly the big three of perennial PRO14 champions Leinster, last year’s runners-up Munster and Ulster.
None of the SA teams came close to beating an Irish side in the opening weeks, with the Bulls losing comprehensively to both Leinster and the fourth-ranked Irish team, Connacht.
Since the cessation of URC hostilities for the international window, more perspective has been brought to what the South Africans face by the impressive form shown by Ireland in the games against southern-hemisphere opposition. It was topped, of course, by the good win over the All Blacks, but the more recent thumping of Argentina was no less impressive.
The Irish and French toppling of the All Blacks, coupled with England’s one-point win over the Boks on the last weekend of the Autumn International series, has issued a strong hint of a power shift to the north, with Ireland very much in the forefront of that charge as they fly up the world rankings after slipping up in the last World Cup year.
With Ireland and Scotland being the main Bok pool opponents at the next World Cup in France in 2023, the performances in matches against teams from those countries could take on extra significance from a psychological viewpoint. As in Ireland’s task of beating the Boks in France might be lessened if some of the aura of South African players is taken away by their teams whipping teams from this country on a weekly basis.
The same can be said for Scotland, who if you listened to their coach Gregor Townsend speak after his team was defeated by the Boks at Murrayfield, are on a mission to be ready to topple the Boks in their big pool game in 2023.
But it is the Irish aura that Bok coach Jacques Nienaber will most appreciate seeing dented just a bit before 2023, and as there is no time like the present to get something going, he will no doubt be rooting for the Bulls when they host his old team, Munster, in the headline game at Loftus on Saturday night.
For the Bulls it is certainly a must-win game if they hope to retain strong championship aspirations, and Nienaber might warn them against the folly of reading too much into the fact that Munster, coached by a former Bok and Bulls assistant in Johann van Graan, have brought out a young team. There is a lot of squad depth at the top Irish provinces.
A Bulls win will not only please Nienaber, not to mention their own coach Jake White, it will perhaps more pertinently be a blow against the Irish hegemony in the competition that the other local teams can exploit.
This weekend’s first home games for SA teams coincide with the return of fans to local stadiums for competition games. Each venue will admit 2,000 vaccinated spectators and, as Stormers loose forward Willie Engelbrecht put it, that will seem like a huge crowd compared to what the players have got used to in recent times.
“We have played in empty stadiums during the past year and then at venues where everyone was cheering for the opposition, so 2,000 in at Cape Town Stadium will feel like a big crowd to us and we will really appreciate the support,” said Engelbrecht when looking ahead at his team’s clash with Parma Zebre on Saturday.
The Stormers are set to welcome back a trio of Springbok tourists in the form of Marvin Orie, Damian Willemse and Salmaan Moerat and, after being the best performing of the SA sides in the opening weeks, they will be in a confident mood as they prepare for Zebre. The Sharks will also get a few Boks back, most notably Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi, who returned early from tour for that purpose, when they host Scarlets on Saturday, while the Lions are also welcoming back a few star players such as veteran Bok loose forward Willem Alberts and big-kicking fullback Tiaan Swanepoel for their game against Cardiff on Sunday.Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures:Connacht vs Ospreys (Galway, Friday 9:35pm) Benetton vs Glasgow Warriors (Treviso, Saturday 3pm) Stormers vs Zebre (Cape Town, Saturday 3pm) Sharks vs Scarlets (Durban, Saturday 5:30pm) Dragons vs Edinburgh (Newport, Saturday 7:15pm) Bulls vs Munster (Pretoria, Saturday 19.45) Leinster v Ulster (Dublin, Saturday 10pm) Lions vs Cardiff Blues (Johannesburg, Sunday 4pm)