Forget those sad souls up north who bemoan the Vodacom United Rugby Championship. It is the new ABC for professional club rugby, writes Mark Keohane.
The English Premiership is falling apart. What was once 12 teams is now closer to nine with no promotion or relegation. The best teams are boosted by imports. Sale’s Sharks, by way of one example, could be playing in South Africa’s Currie Cup, such is the South African influence.
The French Top 14, a gloriously alluring league, leans so heavily on foreign imports. The best players in La Rochelle’s Heineken Cup final win against Leinster at the Aviva in Dublin were not from France.
The Pro 12, then Pro 14 and then Pro Rugby, was the ugly duckling of professional club rugby up north. Enter South Africa into the Vodacom United Rugby Championship and it is more Cinderella time.
The Toffs don’t like it. They give it three years, at best, while their own league burns. Others talk about ‘now’ but the reality is that on Saturday 55 000 will watch the DHL Stormers host Ireland’s Munster in the final. It is the Stormers second home final in two years of the league.
The press from the north has been laughable and particularly sad; but not unexpected. These are the same scribes who embody every one of England’s eight wins against the All Blacks but care to forget the two teams have played 43 times.
Equally, the South African influence when it comes to rugby in the Northern Hemisphere.
Rugby logic said ‘Go North’ for South African rugby. The cross-Tasman rivalry belongs to New Zealand and Australia. South Africa were always the cool dude invited late to the party. Invariably he/she could not dominate.
Now that the South Africans are in the north, there is a quivering, but ironically it is not coming from the URC league nations but from the desperate mob in England who hailed the Premiership as rugby’s ultimate domestic competition and England, by extension, as the ultimate international team.
Never has an international team achieved so little and been put on a pedestal. Never has a domestic competition boasted so much about being English when half its players are foreign.
Kudos to the French for never claiming the Top 14 to be French; rather international.
La Rochelle’s win in the Heineken Cup final in Dublin was international. Toulon’s famous hat trick of European titles had seven South Africans in the starting line-up.
Sale Sharks, who play in the English club final, have 10 South Africans in their match 23.
What a glorious Saturday awaits at the DHL Stadium in Cape Town. More than 55 000 will fill the stadium, after 47 000 attended the home semi-final against Ireland’s Connacht and 44 000 paid to watch the Stormers beat the Vodacom Bulls in the quarter-final.
What a competition, even if Welsh icon Sam Warburton questioned South Africa’s influence after an indifferent month to the start up north a season ago. Sam was a great player. I am not so sure about his understanding of the game beyond the ruck.
I don’t hear much from Sam these days.
South Africa’s players in that first month a season ago, with all matches up north, had not had an off-season in changing hemisphere competitions. It did surprise me that Sam never connected those dots.
This past week, the coverage up north has been mix of anger, annoyance and arrogance.
To even question the price to get a ticket is to showcase privilege – and Europe and Sterling privilege.
Come live in this country and understand that sixty round is sixty pounds. What ignorance; what … pick your adjective.
The DHL Stadium would have sold out whatever the prices because of the corporate frenzy, but the hosts and URC leadership insisted on making the final a possibility to the locals.
Every league in the world can learn from the URC …
To repeat, it is the ABC of rugby and on Saturday more people will be at the DHL Stadium than at last weekend’s ripping Heineken Cup final between Leinster and La Rochelle in Dublin.
To those who can’t shake the shackles of their privileged rugby past, to quote former England coach and new Wallabies coach Eddie Jones, join us in the new dawn of professional club rugby.
‘Come along guys … you will really enjoy it …’
As a starting point … repeat after me … ‘URC … It is like ABC … only it isn’t the start of what a league should be but also the end of what a league should be.’
It is the best league in the game – and it is only two seasons old.
Welcome to Cape Town, a breathtaking city, and welcome to the URC ; equally breathtaking as an international professional club/provincial rugby league.