The tide will turn and while the 2020/21 United Rugby Championship season is about survival, the 2022/23 season will be all about South African success, writes Mark Keohane.
South African rugby supporters must not give up on the United Rugby Championship because of the disruptive nature of the inaugural season and because of a season that seemingly just won’t get going for South Africa’s competing quartet.
Nothing has favoured the South African teams because of the Covid restrictions that meant the South African four spent the first month of the competition in the United Kingdom, playing the top Irish sides and doing so without their current internationals against teams filled with current internationals.
It is not a whine but a reality that it was always going to be an initial uphill battle for the South African teams, especially with the foreign teams not travelling to South Africa in the first month of the competition.
Then when they finally did arrive in South Africa, the new Covid variant spread put an immediate halt to the matches scheduled in South Africa involving foreign teams. Instead, for what seemed like the 20th time in a year, the Lions played the Stormers and the Sharks played the Bulls.
South Africa’s only rugby in 2020 and the first half of 2021 was domestic rugby involving primarily the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions.
One can only take so much of the same old week in and week out, but unfortunately it isn’t going to get any better in the early part of 2022.
It may seem like Groundhog day because the South African teams again travel straight up in the weekend of 7th and 8th January and will be abroad for a fortnight. They then return to South Africa for a double header of domestic derbies and the only light is that the current Springboks will be involved from the outset, which will make a massive difference to the Sharks and Stormers.
South African rugby fans, as things stand, will only get to see the competition’s foreign teams in South Africa near the end of March, such has been a schedule designed around minimizing the impact of Covid.
In a world of uncertainty, take it as a certainty that the league standings won’t look good for the South African teams until those foreign teams start visiting the Republic.
It has been a very messy start to a tournament that will become the professional lifeblood of South African rugby and it is the precursor of a possible Springboks introduction to an expanded Six Nations Championship.
The financial incentive of South African teams playing in the respective European competitions is also a long-term gain and with a more structured pre-season that leads into the 2022/23 season, it will only get better for South African rugby.
For now, it will all seem unfair, but it is of no-one’s doing and there is no competition conspiracy against South Africa’s teams, although the match officiating in the first two months of the competition was sub-standard and home teams invariably got the better decisions.
I am a big believer in the future of the United Rugby Championship. I love the diversity in teams and especially like the presence of the powerful Irish provinces, with Leinster comfortably the equal of New Zealand’s Crusaders when it comes to regional/provincial strength.
There are some super players in the competition and so much legacy and history in terms of the competing teams.
It is a competition that in time will prove as popular as the original Super 12 and I don’t subscribe to the theory that the Springboks will be weaker because of not playing in Super Rugby.
The Springboks, by contrast, are stronger because half the squad have been playing their rugby for overseas clubs up north, and the South African franchise players will only be better playing the type of opposition in the United Rugby Championship and by extension the French and English clubs who will play in the European competitions.
The United Rugby Championship is a win-win for South African rugby, although it doesn’t feel like it right now.
Keep the faith South Africans.