Still in its first full season, the United Rugby Championship has gone through the expected teething problems as North and South struggle with their varying calendar obligations, the different Covid regulations at play and the varying climates games are being played in. Playing 1 week in the UK in December where temperatures are near freezing and the next in a solid 35 degrees Loftus, was always going to take some getting used to. But now, finally the competition can go ahead at full steam.
When the URC commenced in 2021, it was the South African sides who had drawn the short straw. Fixtures were set to take place in the UK and Italy only due to travel restrictions and adding to this was the fact that the teams would be without their Springbok players, an obstacle which effected some more than others, with the Shark for example missing 13 in total. The SA sides struggled to get going and suffered some humbling defeats in the opening rounds of the tournament.
We were then subjected to far too many rounds of local derbies in anticipation of the easing of travel restrictions and teams from the North finally travelling to our shores. The last two weeks have seen the first URC fixtures take place between the North & South in South Africa and the balance had entirely shifted. The Saffa’s managing two full clean sweeps for a total of 8 wins from 8 games, with even the lowly Lions seeing of Munster this past weekend. But again, this is not to say that the SA sides are now dominant in the competition.
With the Northern sides having many players away on duty in the 6 Nations, they are hardly at full strength, with a side like Leinster suffering just as much as the Sharks had in the early stages due to their international laden squad. As a result of all of this, it really has been a competition of two halves up until this point with neither hemisphere clashing at full strength as of yet.
Now that the 6 Nations is done, the URC will benefit greatly from it. Ulster has touched down in Cape Town, Edinburgh is in Durban, the Ospreys in Joburg and the Dragons in Pretoria. All of these sides now bolstered with the return of the internationals will make for a telling weekend in the tournament and it is now unlikely we will see a 3rd successive clean sweep for the SA sides. Whilst some top tier stars may be rested for a few weeks, there are still two and a half months left before the June 18th final and there is all to play for.
The URC is still finding its feet and the South African public hasn’t bought into the tournament entirely, with much reminiscing about the old days in Super Rugby still taking place. This is now the chance for the URC to excel and capture the audience it needs to. This will go hand in hand with the return to a 50% stadium capacity now allowed, so make no mistake the real URC is now upon us.