Munster coach Johann van Graan believes the four South African franchises will have a big say in the way the inaugural Vodacom United Rugby Championship plays out over the coming weeks.
While all four SA sides head north this week, they will then return for a phase of the competition where they host European opponents for much-anticipated cross-continental action in the Republic that was denied in December because of lockdown restrictions.
These matches will give the SA teams a decent run of home games to look forward to and if they do well, as expected, they’re bound to climb the standings and into playoff contention.
The opening tours weren’t a success for the South African teams but there is a sense, now they know what to expect in Europe, that the teams are better prepared. The general feeling among local players and coaches is that playing in South African conditions is an opportunity to rack up a string of victories.
One coach who sees it this way is former Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan, who told Irish media this week that the log will be determined by what teams do in South Africa and that the local teams will very much have a say in the outcome of the first URC season.
“Everyone has still to go down there, and it is going to be a massive challenge for the teams from the northern hemisphere to learn what it takes to play at Loftus and Ellis Park and Cape Town Stadium and in Durban. That is a massive challenge,” said Van Graan.
First though, the SA sides need to negotiate this week’s schedule on foreign soil. Leinster host the Lions and the Vodacom Bulls are at Zebre on Friday night, followed by the Sharks taking on Benetton and the Stormers facing Connacht on Saturday.
While they are widely expected to be favourites at the RDS Arena, where they easily dispatched Ospreys this past weekend, Leinster coach Leo Cullen is preparing for an abrasive clash with the Lions forwards.
“It was important to get a bonus point over the Ospreys in this sequence of matches,” Cullen said after the win.
“The Lions are very big and physical and abrasive around the contact area. We have done our homework on them, so we know there are plenty of threats.
“Leinster must make sure we recover well after the Ospreys game even though it is a short turnaround. We must put in a good week’s training.”
Either way, the end of the derbies and the arrival of cross-continental games will be welcomed all around.