After what feels like another endless series of local derbies, and a random little one-off weekend of games overseas again, the South African URC teams will finally get the chance to host their northern hemisphere counterparts this weekend. I’m sure many would agree, not a moment too soon.
When the Bulls, Lions, Sharks, and Stormers joined the URC last year, after COVID travel restrictions resulted in what some would argue was just the hastening of their inevitable departure from Super Rugby, it was to mixed reception from fans both locally and abroad. Many have been proclaiming URC = best league, but there are certainly those who remain to be convinced (I’m in the latter camp, I’m afraid, but then, I don’t love change at the best of times). Needless to say, when the South African teams began their campaigns with less than stellar results, there was much gleeful rubbing of hands from northern hemisphere fans, and a sense that perhaps the Saffas had underestimated their competition, and been put firmly in their place. With only the Lions coming up tops (against Zebre Parma, who are actually yet to win a game), the first round of the competition was…awkward. By the end of the fourth round, and the end of the initial tour overseas for SA teams, things had only improved marginally for them, with each team having bagged only one win in four rounds.
I think it’s safe to say though, that that initial display is very far from a true reflection of what the SA teams are capable of in this competition. There are certainly factors they need to adjust to – despite the fact that there’s only one law book, it definitely seems as if interpretations vary significantly between the hemispheres, and our teams are used to plying their trade in the south. That being said, and as much as I hate to get into criticising referees, the standard has been…poor. I quite enjoyed a comment by Hanyani Shimange during a recent episode of The Final Whistle – we’re always saying that our players need to adapt to the referees, and that’s true, but when do we ask that the referees adapt to the laws? Food for thought. Anyway, there are other factors, like the weather and the use of artificial turf in some of the stadiums, that may require some getting used to as well. One of the biggest factors, of course, is that none of the Springboks were available during those initial rounds. Considering that teams like the Sharks and Stormers contributed around nine or ten players each to the squad, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that now that their key players are back, those are the same teams that are starting to move their way up the URC log.
COVID robbed us of a chance to see what the northern hemisphere teams would do on South African turf, when Omicron hit just before they were to play here, and resulted in the teams having to leave and the games being postponed. Now they’re back, and the same fans who were so thrilled at how poorly the SA teams performed in the opening rounds are bemoaning the unfairness of their teams having to play some of their games here while many of their players are on Six Nations duty. What’s good for the goose, and all that. We’re by no means guaranteed a whitewash in the coming rounds, with some fierce opposition expected, particularly from the table-topping Irish sides, but this is an opportunity to lay down a marker. By the time the teams from Italy, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland have completed their tours of South Africa, we’ll be in a far better position to judge the state of South Africa’s involvement in the URC, and I suspect things will look a lot brighter than the did at the end of last year.