Photo: Sydney Mahlangu/BackpagePix
When Leinster announced their 31-man squad ahead of their two-match tour to South Africa, much was made of the fact that they were bringing an “understrength” team for the games against the Sharks and Stormers. This was, perhaps, understandable, in light of the fact that Leinster has a sizeable lead at the top of the URC log, and are also preparing for their Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final against Leicester Tigers on 7 May.
The Sharks went on to beat Leinster in a tightly contested match on Saturday, with a supreme defensive effort required to hold the visitors at bay in the dying minutes. Given the Stormers’ current excellent form, and their surge to second place on the log, we can expect an absolute cracker this weekend, and the ever-impressive Leinster could be facing the ignominy of zero from two in their trip to SA. But this is the nature of the current scheduling for the URC – most of the teams are trying to run two tournaments in parallel and it is forcing choices to be made about which of those tournaments to prioritise, as well as placing an even greater premium than ever on squad depth.
While it seems Leinster has, perhaps understandably, chosen to prioritise the Heineken Champions Cup over the URC (or assume that their position in the URC is safe enough not to have to worry about it), most of the South African teams have been conducting a similar juggling act over who to include in URC games when there are Currie Cup games happening at the same time. While the Currie Cup may be “just” a domestic contest, it is one of the oldest domestic rugby competitions in history, and it’s a little sad to see it devalued even further, as long breaks between fixtures and some unions being forced to field understrength teams is leading to reduced interest from fans. Conversely, some unions have opted not to split their squads, which saw certain players playing three games in a little over a week – great from the perspective of equally valuing both tournaments and wanting to win them both, less great from a player welfare point of view.
When the URC concept was initially launched, it was clearly stated that the fixtures would be drawn up so that they never clashed with internationals. This quite obviously didn’t happen, since the start of the tournament coincided with the Rugby Championship, and then later it clashed with the Six Nations. Much of this was due to the pandemic, and the need to reschedule and rearrange the fixtures, although perhaps the intention was always only to avoid the November Tests. Hopefully next season will see teams able to include their internationals in all the games, but also to focus on one tournament at a time, especially since the South African teams are also set to be eligible for qualification for the Champions Cup next year if all goes according to plan. If not, we risk diluting one or more of what should be great rugby products.