Although this is the 1st season of the United Rugby Championship, it has been more than two years since SA last played in Super Rugby. The arrival of Covid-19 had the season called off due to the travel restrictions and risks in place. Nothing has been the same since. Is that a bad thing? If you'd asked me 6 months ago, it would have been a resounding YES. Now, I'm not so sure...
It was always going to take some smart marketing and quality rugby to get the South African fans invested in the new tournament. We are inherently creatures of habit and leaving Super Rugby was always going to be painful. Accusations flew as to which of the SANZAAR partners were at fault, but none of that matters anymore. Australia and New Zealand have Super Rugby Pasifika, whilst Argentina have been left out in the cold and SA has found its new home in the North.
The 2021 portion of the URC was tough to take in. The SA teams, absent of their international players found it tough going in Europe and the results showed it. All the sides were holding up the bottom end of the log and returned home with barely a win to show for their efforts. South Africans were despondent and many felt it was a tragedy that we weren't playing our Southern brothers in Super Rugby any longer.
Come 2022 however, with the teams at full strength and the 1st fixtures being held in SA, coupled with the return of spectators and the recipe for success was finally coming together. I have been glued to my tv in recent weeks. Watching all the SA sides to battle against some truly quality opponents. The rugby on display is of a high quality and its been great to see the variation amongst the countries.
It is no wonder that the URC viewing data shows in excess of 1 million viewers per week, (a 5th of New Zealand's population). Round 2 saw the largest viewership, a whopping 1.7 million, breaking the tournaments previous record of 853 000 this may be all the proof you need, but there is more.
Super Rugby Pasifika is pretty predictable at the moment. The Kiwi sides are pumping everyone but the Brumbies, whilst the Blues and Crusaders rule the roost. Moana Pasifika and the Fijian Drua have added a special element to the tournament, but the lack of true competitive pedigree across the board makes for a poor product, illustrated by the poor turn out at this weekends 'Super Round'.
The URC on the other hand is extremely competitive. Leinster lead by a decent margin but then there is only 1 log point separating 2nd to 5th and a single game 4 points keeping the 8th placed Bulls away from 2nd. I can't recall the last time I saw such a competitive log. With only 2 rounds left of regular play, I can't wait to see if the Stormers can hold off Leinster this weekend or if the Sharks will be able to beat Ulster away in a fortnight. Its going to be an incredible few weeks.
The competition in my eyes has been a success in every sense. The added bonus of the SA sides taking part in the European Rugby Challenge Cup next year means that everything is on the line for at least 3 of our franchises at this point. SA has made the correct choice for their domestic rugby and one can just glance at the commentary coming out of New Zealand to realise they are missing us, far more than we are missing them.