The Bulls’ Rainbow Cup final loss to Benetton exposed the challenges South African teams will face in the United Rugby Championship, writes DYLAN JACK.
It was a firm reality check when, just four days after the URC was announced, the Bulls suffered a humiliating loss in the Rainbow Cup final after being heavily favoured to win in Treviso due to their dominance of the domestic scene.
In a revolutionary move for the future of professional rugby, the URC will pit the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls against the Pro14’s contingent of Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian teams in a new 16-team league that kicks off in September.
South African rugby’s shift to the northern hemisphere has been mooted for years and plans were accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and New Zealand’s unilateral decision to walk away from the Super Rugby portion of the Sanzaar alliance.
There are obvious benefits to the new tournament, including more forgiving travel demands and the appeal of no longer needing to cross the time zones required for matches in Australia and New Zealand.
However, if there was a thought that the South African teams would have it easy in the new competition, a Benetton side packed with Italian internationals gave the Bulls, the best South African team and holders of the Currie Cup and Super Rugby Unlocked, a lesson in playing finals rugby.
That challenge has not been lost on any of the other South African clubs. Sharks chief executive Eduard Coetzee is well aware of what to expect, having spent eight years in France during his playing days as a prop for Biarritz.
One of the immediate challenges that needs to be addressed lies in ensuring each squad has enough depth to cope with playing on multiple fronts, especially as the URC will overlap with the Test window in September and October and the South African teams will be without their Springboks for the opening portion of the competition.
“We need to shift our strategy in terms of contracting players and even our coaching staff,” Coetzee says. “We are going into a competition that some of us have played in, but none of us have coached in.
“We will definitely have to shore up our squad, especially if you look at the time of year. If you tour first, there will have to be a distinct change in your playing strategy from a wet field in Limerick compared to a dry October afternoon in Durban. You will have to broaden your squad in terms of that too. We have had enough warning so we can contract accordingly.”
The Sharks have already started to make moves in shaking up their coaching department, recruiting former Leinster academy director and Ireland U20 coach Noel McNamara as their new attack and backs coach.
Highly rated and experienced, McNamara will also be expected to aid the Sharks coaching staff by sharing his knowledge of the teams they will be facing in the URC.
“To expect a coach to analyse 12 or so teams they have never played against will put them under pressure, especially with 11 of your best players unavailable, which will add additional pressure,” Coetzee says.
South African fans may look at the 16-team, conference-format tournament with concern, after Super Rugby proved how dangerous over-expansion can be. However, there is something new at play as South African teams are set to qualify to play in the Champions Cup from the 2022-23 season onwards.
This is something Coetzee is particularly excited about, as it could see the Sharks face European powerhouses such as French giants Toulouse and Toulon, and traditional England heavyweights Saracens.
“Having played in the Champions and Challenge Cup with Biarritz, we went to the Heineken Cup final, but we were bottom of the French League. So that competition presents almost an immediate knockout. You have very small pools and afterwards a quarter-final, semi-final and final. So it’s almost played over six weeks and gives you a different lease of life. You might be struggling in the URC, but then you can still really perform well in the Challenge Cup.
“By no means is that going to be easy. I just think it’s a great carrot. Not just for the four franchises, but also for the fans and greater South African rugby public for us to measure ourselves against the powerhouses in Europe.”
For all the talk of challenges and concerns, the bottom line is that the South African teams will be expected to add a new competitiveness to a competition that has become stale over the past few years, as Leinster have lifted the title four times in a row.
“From our point of view, we will never enter a competition if we don’t intend competing for top honours,” Coetzee adds. “I think all South African teams are like that, to be honest.
“We are committed to making this first European outing a successful one. We don’t want to go there and make excuses. We know what the challenges will be and we want to take them head on.”
United Rugby Championship CEO Martin Anayi opened up on the expectations of South Africa’s teams:
“The main thing for me is for these teams to challenge at the top end,”Anayi said. “Where our tournament has been strong previously – other than the couple of years when the Irish teams have dominated – is we have had different winners: Glasgow won the title, Scarlets from Wales won it. That’s what we want to get back to. We want to get back to that jeopardy, where a different team can win on each weekend.
“The Irish teams have been so strong, in our competition and in the Champions Cup. The challenge that I am so glad the South African teams are rising to is they want to come and win. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter in what fashion you do that. It’s that they are coming to win. That’s what drives me and gets me excited. The teams over here need to be challenged to improve. That’s why I have enjoyed the discussions I’ve had with the likes of Leinster and Munster. They have championed this expansion because it pushes them on to get better and stronger. That’s what we are looking for.”
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