Context, understanding and a bit of patience. That has to be the message to the South African rugby public when it comes to the South African participation in the United Rugby Championship, writes Mark Keohane.
It is not doom and gloom and it simply can’t be a case of every 80-minute performance, regardless of which South African team is playing, defines South African rugby.
There is going to be a fair bit of disappointment in results in the first half of the tournament, but judgement should be reserved until South African teams have enjoyed the luxury of playing hosts, and the most accurate assessment of the URC won’t be this season but in the 2022/23 tournament when every team will have enjoyed a proper pre-season and the South African teams won’t have been on a continuous treadmill of competitive rugby.
The Bulls play Edinburgh in Scotland in the URC on Saturday evening and it will be a remarkable achievement if the Bulls triumph and return to South Africa with two wins from four on their mini-tour up north.
What makes any potential of a win remarkable is that Jake White’s Bulls have had 46 weeks of rugby in the past 54 weeks, including preparing for three matches that were cancelled on the Friday before match day because of Covid positive tests, either with the Bulls or the opposition.
The Edinburgh match will be the Bulls 40th in just over 12 months, with White’s Currie Cup champions having won 30 from 39 in all competitions for a 77% success rate.
Much was made of the manner of defeat for the Bulls in their opening two URC matches against Irish champions Leinster and Ireland’s Connacht. The Bulls lost 31-3 and 34-7 respectively and were well beaten in the first in the first 40 minutes against Cardiff before a stunning second half turnaround saw them win 29-19, having trailed 16-3 at half-time.
White lauded the win against Cardiff as special because of the nature of the comeback and also the context of the season.
‘We are a no excuse team, but the reality is this is a group of players who have been at it without interruption, and with a lot of uncertainty given Covid, for a year. It is unheard of and it certainly won’t be the norm going forward as things start to settle with the competition structures in South Africa and in Europe,’ said White.
The Bulls were dominant in South Africa, winning back-to-back Currie Cup finals in the same year, winning Super Rugby Unlocked and also winning the Rainbow Cup SA.
They lost 35-8 in the Rainbow Cup final to Italy’s Benetton in Treviso and the margins of defeat in Ireland in the URC were a mirror of that defeat.
White is a pragmatist and a realist.
The three defeats were disappointing but not necessarily surprising, especially the first-up match against Leinster, whose match-day squad included 17 internationals.
South African teams have never experienced a 21-match league competition, in which the tournament starts in September and ends 10 months later.
The start to the URC was always going to be a case of taking a few steps back before advancing and the criticism of the four South African teams in the first fortnight of the competition was out of kilter with the reality of the situation.
The South African teams, deprived of their current national squad players, went straight from an intense Currie Cup schedule into a month away and four successive matches in Europe.
They were up against very good and settled opposition, starting their season and familiar with playing conditions and refereeing interpretations.
White’s Bulls aside, the Stormers and Sharks battled in the first fortnight and the Lions were a mixed bag, with a win against Zebre, who are among the weaker overseas teams in the competition.
The Bulls win against Cardiff, the Sharks win against the Ospreys, the Stormers draw against Edinburgh and win against the Dragons and the Lions narrow and controversial 13-9 defeat to Glasgow were more indicative of the strength of the South African challenge in the competition – and it is a challenge that will only grow in momentum when the four South African teams finally do get to play at home in front of crowds.
For now, it looks like the South African home games will be played in Italy because of planning around Covid travel restrictions and once again the mental strength of the South African players will be tested.
‘We are hopeful that it will be a case of playing at home sooner rather than later, but for now we are playing the hand we have been dealt,’ says White.
There is always opportunity in adversity and for White there has already been enormous growth within the younger players since the start of the URC.
White, like the other South African coaches, knows just how good the URC can become as a tournament once the playing fields are balanced, in terms of the playing schedule and the travel, which allows teams to play in South Africa.
‘South Africans will never accept losing in any sport and that expectation must never change,’ says White. ‘But there also has to be an informed view of any situation and an understanding that under the circumstances there were always going to be struggles in the early stages of the competition, especially in adjusting to the referee interpretations, which are significantly different to the way the matches were officiated in the Currie Cup.’
Tappe Henning, the former South African international referee, has been the head of Scotland’s referees since 2013. White, in the past fortnight, made extensive use of Henning’s knowledge to educate the Bulls players about what to expect from referees up north, and it clearly had an impact against Cardiff.
‘It gave a glimpse of our potential,’ says White. ‘So too the performances of the other South African sides. ‘Look, our players have never experienced a 21-match competition and we as coaches are in uncharted territory in this first season, when it comes to such a structure, travel and managing squads. We’re all learning and the good news is we are learning fast about a competition that is a marathon and not a sprint.’