South Africa’s entry to the Vodacom United Rugby Championship is the best thing to happen to Irish rugby since Willie John McBride, writes ZELIM NEL.
One of the game’s all-time greats, McBride made 63 appearances for Ireland between 1962 and 1975, and was a member of five tours with the British & Irish Lions.
The likes of Keith Wood and Brian O’Driscoll would have grown up on tales of the iconic Ireland lock, but the next generation of Ireland stars will trace their roots back to the arrival of South African rugby in European competitions.
The Republic was at the heart of rugby turning professional in 1996 and, 25 years later, South Africa flexed again to effect the next seismic shift in the global game.
Changing the horizontal alignment to a vertical one, SA Rugby pulled out of Super Rugby and expertly negotiated the unthinkable – a wholesale transfer to the northern hemisphere where the Vodacom Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers were added to the URC while the Cheetahs were put on pause for a season.
Some European stakeholders were resistant to the radical disruption of the established order, and the merits of the move were cast in doubt as the newcomers to the former Celtic league made a shaky start. But the SA teams soon found their feet and began to march up the table, and on Saturday the Stormers and Bulls will be on parade in the Cape Town final.
Regardless of the result, they will join the Sharks in the next Champions Cup competition while the Lions and Cheetahs will contest the Challenge Cup.
It’s conceivable that, this time next year, a South African team will have been crowned European champions. If you’ve got the keys to a time machine, head back to 1995 and please let me know how Francois Pienaar reacts to this news from the future.
These developments seem like a good reason for South African supporters to slide a bottle of champagne out of the fridge, and indeed it is. But the real winners in this transaction are undoubtedly Ireland.
The Bulls hammered Leinster into submission in Dublin on Friday night. Laden with Test veterans, the Irish giants were bossed by a young Bulls team devoid of a single Springbok starter.
Today, the Irish fraternity won’t be at all concerned with whether they trail New Zealand teams for skill, they’ll be wrapping their head around the sudden realisation that they’re going to have to power up to live with their new South African neighbours.
Instead of dreaming up cute strike moves and adorable offloads, Irish coaches will be typing ‘collision coach’ into the search bar and hoping for the best as they hit Enter.
The Emerald Isle’s infatuation with Kiwi rugby, players and coaches has undoubtedly ramped up Ireland’s technical expertise in recent years, resulting in three memorable victories over the All Blacks in five matches since 2016.
Though to a lesser degree, such close proximity to New Zealand in Super Rugby and the Tri-Nations certainly helped expand South Africa’s thinking about the technical side of the game.
But the landscape has shifted and the Irish provinces now find themselves thrust close to the furnace of South African rugby where they will have to forge weapons of mass destruction to survive.
The tenets of power rugby will have been written across the blackboard when the bell rang in Dublin on Monday morning and the focus of the national programme will turn to developing players and tactics capable of crossing the gainline with maximum efficiency rather than style.
Regular engagements with South African contenders will cultivate in Ireland the raw physicality that has traditionally separated the Boks from their Euro rivals.
Leinster and Ulster fans will be down in the dumps today, but you can bet your house on Ireland ascending the World Rugby rankings in the coming years. And they’ll have SA Rugby at large to thank for that.