A double round of home matches is next on the menu for the South African teams participating in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship and it is going to be interesting to see how they apply the lessons learned from the initial four-match tours that went off with mixed success.
The Vodacom Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and the Lions are all on a much-needed break now and after none of them reached the minimum target of winning two of the games – meaning a 50% return from their first trip north – they will know they have much to work on.
However, they have a six-week break and that’s enough time to internalise the many lessons that came out of their initial exposure to the new world they face now that the southern rivalries everyone, including their supporters, got used to in the first 26 years of professional rugby in Super Rugby has been consigned to history.
The overseas clubs they are playing now aren’t completely alien to everyone who follows South African teams. Cardiff did tour South Africa in 1982, for instance. But, in general, the games the South African teams have played so far have all been played against teams they’ve never played against before and at venues they’ve never played before. There are some big stadium games in the URC, such as when the Bulls opened against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, but many of the venues are small and compact yet. That compactness makes for an atmosphere at games they may be unused to.
All four South African teams have now had their first experiences of the artificial 4G pitches that are becoming more prevalent in European club rugby. It didn’t start well, with the Sharks losing to Glasgow Warriors after falling behind early at Scotstoun Stadium, but they wouldn’t have blamed the pitch for their defeat in the final game by Cardiff Blues on the Arms Park 4G surface.
The Bulls started badly in their first experience of a 4G pitch and were well behind against the Blues before they recovered to win comfortably. Again, they wouldn’t blame the pitch for their narrow defeat by the Warriors at Scotstoun a week later.
Of course, none of the SA teams have experienced the full brunt of a northern winter, and that will be the biggest challenge of them all when it does arrive. It is not such a pressing concern, though, in this first year of the URC, as South African teams are only scheduled to make one visit north in January. In February, the worst part of the northern winter, they will be playing derbies as that period coincides with the Six Nations.
They are going to have to get used to those challenges going forward, though, so it may have been a good thing that all the teams did get at least a little taste of the varying conditions they will play in. For example, the heat of Treviso was a far cry for the Stormers from the more chilly, autumnal conditions they experienced in Limerick, and then came the rainy second half against Edinburgh followed by a wet, slippery surface at Rodney Parade.
The Sharks mainly encountered dry conditions that might have even been preferable to muggy King’s Park in mid-summer, but the Bulls and the Lions also got a cross-section of weather conditions.
Of course, there is going to have to be a big adjustment made to the differences in the way the sport is refereed north of the equator. Most of the differences are subtle, but they can have big impacts on games, as all the local teams will testify after going through the experience of being heavily penalised in at least some of their tour games.
That they can learn is evidenced by the experience of the Sharks, who considerably improved the penalty count against them during the course of their tour. To an extent so did the Stormers and Lions, with the Bulls still being a work-on following a first half against the Warriors where they may have questioned some of the calls made against them.
The breakdown is the grey area that most needs to be settled and it was interesting to note the Sharks’ soon-to-be-new Scotland international Dylan Richardson’s view that once that is dealt with, the South African teams could be unstoppable. That might have been a view to quibble with early in the competition, but by the end of the first four-week tours all of them were showing signs of having learned quickly.
What they should all also know by now is that apart from differing refereeing styles, with the Irish referees, for instance, being starkly different in the way they handle games to the Italian referees, and variable and contrasting conditions, they are also set to face variations in the type of game the opposition play.
Now that Edinburgh are playing a more expansive game under the coaching of Mike Blair, the attacking style preached by Scotland national coach Gregor Townsend is being embraced by both the Scottish franchises. The Irish approach is more blunt and pragmatic, with less flair in evidence, and from what we have seen so far ditto the Welsh. The Italian teams also bring something different.
Whoever they play against, however, all opponents are highly professional and well drilled, and with a few exceptions, that also means impeccably disciplined, too. That means SA teams need to be more patient and also more clinical, as they cannot expect the penalties to flow their way as they sometimes do in domestic rugby back home.