SA teams bound for Europe: It’s a whole new ball game

The newly devised United Rugby Championship may bear similarities to the much-maligned Super Rugby conference format, but it’s the incentive of qualifying for European competition that makes it a game changer for South African teams, writes CRAIG LEWIS.

During an extraordinary year in 2020, New Zealand effectively made a unilateral decision to walk away from the Super Rugby portion of the Sanzaar alliance.

Ultimately, it meant plans had to be expedited for SA Rugby to secure its pathway into northern-hemisphere competition.

‘South African rugby has for many years imagined a future aligned with northern-hemisphere rugby and this announcement marks the arrival of that vision,’ CEO Jurie Roux commented on Tuesday when details of the United Rugby Championship were revealed.

With far more forgiving travel demands, and the appeal of no longer needing to cross time zones, there are obvious reasons this move north was always going to materialise in just a matter of time.

That time is now and, in many ways, there is New Zealand Rugby to thank for nudging South Africa out and in the direction of PRO Rugby.

One only needs to look at the one-sided nature of the Trans-Tasman competition, and comments from leading Kiwi players who have hinted at growing tired of beating up their own countrymen each week in Aotearoa, to know that the grass is not always greener on the other side.

Super Rugby’s expansion to include two Pacific Islands teams is sure to offer fantastic entertainment and will be of great benefit to the island nations, but it’s hardly likely to alter the hegemony of New Zealand’s teams.

By contrast, the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions are set to enter a competition that will value traditional qualities that are far more closely aligned to Test-match rugby.

Explainer: How the United Rugby Championship will work

Clashes with the likes of Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ospreys and Beneton are enthralling prospects, and South Africa’s four participating franchises will be challenged in different ways.

Of course, South African onlookers may view the bloated season format of 18 rounds, 16 teams, and different conferences with a well-placed concern that Super Rugby proved how dangerous over-expansion can be.

And yet, there is something entirely different at play.

The 2021-22 competition will be an introductory season for South African teams, but they are then set to be eligible to qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup from the 2022-23 season.

All points won during the URC season will contribute to rankings in the regional pools and the highest-ranking team in each of the four pools will earn a place in the Champions Cup for the following season. The remaining four places will be awarded to the four highest-ranked teams from the single-standing league table who have not already qualified through the four regional pools.

Realistically, it means there is every chance that at least two of South Africa’s best-serving franchises will find a place in the lucrative Champions Cup from next year, heralding in battles against the likes of Toulouse, Exeter Chiefs, La Rochelle and the Sale Sharks.

A new market, with new money and new opportunities, presents a whole new ball game for SA Rugby, and will offer a massive incentive for the four teams during the 2022-23 URC season that will be nothing like we saw in Super Rugby.

After all the uncertainty over the past 18 months, the greatest challenge now is contending with an inordinate amount of competition, but there is good reason for SA Rugby to be smiling all the way to the bank.

And when the Bulls and Toulouse are ripping into battle, Super Rugby will be just a distant memory and, ultimately, it’s the pathway provided by the United Rugby Championship that will be there to be thanked.

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Craig Lewis