The last full season of Super Rugby as we knew it, took place in 2019 prior to the Rugby World Cup. At that time all of the current URC teams were plying their trade in the competition as they had been since its establishment in 1996. Fast forward three years and the very same teams are in their debut season of the United Rugby Championship. So before the play-off's get underway lets take a look at how the SA teams fared.
Super Rugby - The Blue Bulls were SA's top ranked side (5th) having played 16 games and winning 8 (50% win rate) with two draws to their name as well. Coached by Pote Human at the time, the side managed to score a total of 410 points, conceding 369. The Bulls made it through to the quarter finals against the Hurricane's making the trip to New Zealand. The travel scheduled proved to much and the Bulls were knocked out of the competition with a score of 35 - 28 in favor of the hosts.
URC - Under new coach Jake White, the Bulls have vastly improved on their 2019 rankings. They have earned the right to a home quarter-final after finishing 4th overall (1 position higher) and managed a solid 11 wins from 18 games. The Bulls also showed an improved potency on attack, having scored 518 points with their defence only conceding 388 points. The Bulls will host the Sharks and Saturday and will hope the home field advantage will see them go at least 1 better than their 2019 performances did.
Super Rugby - The Sharks finished in 6th overall in 2019, which saw them being the only other SA side to make the play-off's. The Durban side managed 7 wins from their 16 games with 2 draws as well, scoring 343 points and conceding almost as many, 335 on defence. This meant the Sharks were set to face the Brumbies away in the quarter-final, a game in which they were comprehensively outdone by the Aussies, going down 38 - 13.
URC - The Sharks managed to match the Bulls with 11 wins from 18 games this season, with a much improved attack they scored 510 points and conceded 365 points, shoring up their defence along the way. They missed out on a home play-off by 1 log point which now sees them travel up the N3 to Pretoria this weekend, a far less arduous trip than that which they faced in 2019. The Sharks will be hoping that their Springbok contingent sees them go one further this year though as they look to progress to the semi-finals.
Super Rugby - The Lions fell down the pecking order in 2019 after a string of appearances in the finals, finding themselves in 9th on the log and missing out on a play-off berth by 1 point on the log. The Lions did however manage more wins than either of the Sharks or Bulls, who only got ahead by the points they picked up in their 2 draws during the regular season. The Lions managed to score 401 points but conceded 478, showing their defensive frailties.
URC - Unfortunately things didn't get better for the Lions during their URC debut. The Lions again managed 8 wins from their 18 games, scoring 408 points and conceding 450. The defensive struggles have persisted despite the inclusion of Jacques Fourie and the Joburg side has failed to qualify for the play-off's of the URC, the only SA side to fall shy.
Super Rugby - The Stormers were SA's worst ranked side in Super Rugby, finishing in 10th place and also missing out on the play-off's. Having managed 7 wins and a draw for their efforts, they scored a total of 344 points but conceded 366. 2019 was definitely a season the Cape based franchise would be glad to see in their rear view mirrors
URC - It's happier news for the Stormers and their fans in the URC this season though as they are by miles, the most improved South African outfit. The Stormers have built up a huge head of steam at home and managed to finish 2nd overall, ensuring they qualify for a home quarter final against the Warriors. The Stormers managed to score 464 points and conceded 311, with 12 victories from their 18 games being their real point of improvement, almost doubling their win rate. The Stormers should be backed to make it to the semi-finals too and are probably SA's best prospect for success in the URC this season.
The competitions are worlds apart in terms of format, travel, opposition etc. As a supporter of the game however, I must throw my support behind the URC. The quality of competition is self evident in how tight the race for the play-offs were. The viewing times ensure we are always able to have a braai going and enjoy the rugby, spilling our beers rather than our coffee.
The SA sides have fared better in this competition compared to 2019 and there is no doubting the missing Kiwi sides have played a role in their better fortunes but the reduced travel burden and its effect on player welfare must receive due regard too. The added bonus of teams progressing into the Champions and Challenge cups however, tip the scales heavily in favor of participating in the URC.