The opening rounds of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship have been watched by record TV audiences and those figures should soar even further once the South African teams have adjusted and started to bring their own bag of tricks to the competition.
It was Springbok No 8 Duane Vermeulen who, on the M-Net documentary on South Africa’s 2019 World Cup triumph, spoke about how the players were encouraged by coach Rassie Erasmus on the eve of the final to bring the magic tricks that made them special and got them selected in the first place. The message was that they shouldn’t be afraid to try things, and that was translated into the brilliant instinctive play with which Lukhanyo Am set up Makazole Mapimpi for SA’s first-ever try in a World Cup decider.
Am did it again when the Boks beat New Zealand last week, with his sublime little offload, almost a back-flip, getting the confidence juices flowing for his team as Damian de Allende went in to score. With all the negativity from foreign media about the Boks’ playing style, it was forgotten that local players can produce such moments of wizardry.
But they can, and later this past Saturday we saw several instances of that when the Stormers produced a rousing offload game in shooting to a 15-0 lead against Munster at Thomond Park. Munster eventually took control of possession and territory and won fairly comfortably, though it did take a special try from another South African, RG Snyman, to finally put the Stormers out of the contest.
Snyman developed X factor when former All Blacks coach John Mitchell was mentoring the Vodacom Bulls, while Stormers skills coach Labeeb Levy believes that the exposure many of the South Africans had to the Kiwi offload game in Super Rugby has given them a gift that perhaps isn’t replicated to the same extent in the European players and teams.
“The overseas teams are more polished than us, but if you are comparing what we are facing now to what we got used to playing against when we played New Zealand teams, it is not as flashy, there are not many offloads,” said Levy during his team’s buildup to Saturday’s game against Edinburgh.
“The teams we play are well drilled and rely a lot on kicking into the 22 and mauling. Their maul systems are very good, and for us to become competitive we are going is going to quickly have to get used to that. But while European teams are very good at what they do, they are not overly exposed to that [offload] style. It is an area that we can definitely work on to see how we can make it work to our advantage.”
It certainly did work to their advantage in the first half of the Munster game. It’s not often Munster find themselves behind 15-0 on their home patch one minute before half time, and in that period the Stormers showed one of the new dimensions that SA teams can bring to the competition.
The trick for them is just to find a way to sustain it over a full 80 minutes, and that may come in time – and let’s not forget that, like the Sharks and Bulls, the Stormers are not near to full strength at this point.
The one team that is at full strength, the Lions, were responsible for a commanding first-half performance against Zebre in the opening round that laid down a marker on what could be achieved if the SA teams worked at bringing the width and all-round attacking game that had their opponents floundering.
It may in fact not be entirely a coincidence that the most disappointing SA team to this point in terms of expectations, the Bulls, are the local side who are the closest replica of what the Irish sides mostly are. In other words, a team that relies on forward dominance, territory and clinical execution.
It could be that what has made the Bulls relatively easy pickings for Leinster and Connacht is that those teams have been playing against a game strategy they know. There isn’t the slightly different angle that the Sharks, Lions and Stormers, who have been working hard on their offloading game and dazzled in that regard in the Rainbow Cup, might bring.
That’s not to say the Bulls aren’t going to get better and in time perhaps establish the same authority over opponents in the URC that they do in domestic competition. As Cardiff coach Dai Young has said ahead of his team’s clash with the Bulls this coming weekend, the margin of defeat in the first two games did flatter their opponents.
“I thought the score last week flattered Connacht a little bit. The Bulls were better than the score would lead you to believe,” said Young. The Cardiff coach backed up what Edinburgh flyhalf Jaco van der Walt and a few others, such as Ulster coach Dan McFarland, had to say in predicting that the SA teams would be a big factor in the competition once they have adjusted to conditions and the way the European teams play.
Given that the Stormers are on an offload mission and Edinburgh are under a new coach who is determined to get them to play a more all-encompassing, possession-orientated game than they did under their previous coach, Saturday night’s clash between those teams could be the most entertaining in the third round.
Like the Sharks last week, the Stormers will have to adjust to the 4G synthetic surface, which they will be experiencing for the first time, but they showed against Munster they have the offload game to trouble even the best teams. The Bulls will also be determined to atone for their two defeats when they play the late Saturday game in Cardiff, while on the evidence of the Welsh team’s form in recent seasons, the Sharks should fancy their chances in Swansea against Ospreys on Friday.
The Lions could have challenged for a second win had it not been for their ill-discipline late in their game against Scarlets and, as a team that enjoys tempo, they might have a liking for the 4G surface at Glasgow’s home ground of The Scotstoun in the other Saturday game.
Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures:
Ospreys vs Sharks (Swansea, Friday 8:35am)
Ulster vs Benetton (Belfast, Friday 8:35am)
Leinster vs Zebre (Dublin, Saturday 2pm)
Glasgow Warriors vs Lions (Glasgow, Saturday 4:45pm)
Connacht vs Dragons (Galway, Saturday 6:15pm)
Edinburgh vs Stormers (Edinburgh, Saturday 6:15pm)
Cardiff Blues vs Bulls (Cardiff, Saturday 9:35pm)
Scarlets vs Munster (Llanelli, Sunday 3pm)
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