Sport / Rugby

Sports Reporter
3 minute read
24 Nov 2021
10:01 am

SA teams look to turn the tables as URC resumes

Sports Reporter

The results over the first four weeks of competition confirmed the Irish sides are the teams to beat.

Bulls director of rugby Jake White looks on ahead of his team's United Rugby Championship match against Leinster earlier this season. Picture: Gallo Images

The four weeks they have already experienced, coupled with what they learned about a possible shift in global rugby power during the break that followed, should mean the South African teams will take a different perspective into the restart of the United Rugby Championship (URC).

When the local teams started out in the URC they wouldn’t have quite known what to expect. The Bulls had been issued what appeared to be a warning call to local teams when they were comprehensively outplayed in the Rainbow Cup final in Treviso in June, but that was the only game a South African team had played against an overseas side, and that could have been an aberration.

The wake-up call gathered momentum quickly, however, once the URC started, with the Lions’ win over Parma Zebre in Italy being the only success of the opening weekend.

Since then, there has been a steady improvement and promise of a quick upward learning curve, but the message has nonetheless been clear – this is a tough competition and a massive challenge for both coaches and players, given the varied opposition and playing styles, not to mention the conditions and refereeing variations between the hemispheres.

ALSO READ: URC has lifted standard of Test rugby, says Robbie Henshaw

The results over the first four weeks of competition confirmed the Irish teams would be the ones to beat, particularly the big three of perennial Pro 14 champions Leinster, last year’s runners-up Munster and Ulster.

None of the SA teams came close to beating an Irish side in the opening weeks, with the Bulls losing comprehensively to both Leinster and the fourth-ranked Irish team, Connacht.

With the series resuming this weekend, however, after European teams displayed their dominance during this month’s Test window, the SA sides will have a chance to showcase their class on home soil.

The Bulls host Munster in this week’s headline game at Loftus on Saturday night, and it is a must-win fixture for the hosts if they hope to retain strong championship aspirations.

Perhaps more pertinently, a Bulls victory would also be a blow against the Irish hegemony in the competition that the other local teams can exploit.

Munster, coached by a former Bok and Bulls assistant in Johan van Graan, have brought out a young team, but they boast a lot of depth.

ALSO READ: Lions will be close to full strength for URC restart against Cardiff

The Stormers, meanwhile, are set to welcome back a trio of Springbok tourists in the form of Marvin Orie, Damian Willemse and Salmaan Moerat, and after being the best performing SA side in the opening weeks they will be in a confident mood as they prepare for Zebre.

The Sharks will also get a few Boks back – most notably Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi, who returned early from the recent UK tour for that purpose – when they host Scarlets on Saturday, while the Lions also welcome back a few star players such as veteran Bok loose-forward Willem Alberts and big-kicking fullback Tiaan Swanepoel for their game against Cardiff on Sunday.

This weekend’s first home games for SA teams will also see the return of fans to local stadiums.

Each venue will admit 2 000 vaccinated spectators, and as Stormers loose-forward Willie Engelbrecht put it, that will seem like a huge crowd compared to what the players have got used to in recent times.

“We have played in empty stadiums during the past year, and then at venues where everyone was cheering for the opposition, so 2 000 in at Cape Town Stadium will feel like a big crowd to us and we will really appreciate the support,” Engelbrecht said.