• URC ready for hot restart after frustrating pause for SA teams 


    South Africa’s move north for the four elite professional club teams in the United Rugby Championship was the right move, but a solution must be found for the stop-start nature of the season, writes MARK KEOHANE

    The URC, like the knockout Champions Cup, is based on the northern hemisphere traditional rugby season, which factors in the recently completed Six Nations. The competitions break during the Six Nations and for the South African quartet it means no competitive rugby for six weeks.

    The URC also breaks for a month in January as the teams focus on the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Pool games, with the knockout last 16 round matches scheduled for April.

    South Africa’s rugby public has always been accustomed to a one-league domestic system, in which the domestic teams complete their competition schedule before the start of the international season, which has always been around June/July.

    The interest in rugby up north hits a peak during the Six Nations and the URC and Champions Cup and Challenge Cup remain top of mind because most players involved in these competitions play for Wales, Ireland, Italy and Scotland.

    Teams like Leinster, Munster, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Benetton provide the core of the international squads for Ireland, Scotland and Italy respectively, while the Welsh club quartet make up the Wales Six Nations squad. Those players are battle-hardened and transition seamlessly from international obligations into domestic league play.

    It is an advantage that there is no extended break for the international players from these nations, whereas in South Africa all four URC teams and the Cheetahs, who play in the Challenge Cup, are still grappling with how best to navigate these two lengthy breaks in the season.

    The league match inactivity not only restricts the South African players in terms of match conditioning but it also stifles the league’s presence in the South African sporting calendar, at a time when there should be a saturation of rugby in the South African market.

    For now, it is what it is, but the two respective competitions, and those South African franchises affected, will have to find a way to find competitive matches and to constantly be front of mind for supporters by way of matches.

    The next two months offer what seems to be a rarity in non-stop action for the South African clubs, and June will provide activity for those who qualify for the play-offs. Then we are into the Springboks welcoming Ireland to South Africa for a two-Test series, which has already been sold out.

    This weekend’s matches see the URC inaugural winners the Stormers at home in Cape Town against Scotland’s Edinburgh. More than 20 000 are expected at the DHL Stadium, which is a very good response for non-South African derby matches. The latter have been getting 40 000-plus crowd attendances.

    Edinburgh’s veteran prop WP Nel plays his 200th match for the club and it is significant he plays it in Cape Town because Nel’s amateur club career started in Cape Town’s northern suburbs, playing for DurbBell, which is a combined team from the suburbs Durbanville and Bellville.

    The Stormers, beaten in their last URC match against the Bulls in Pretoria, have been near flawless when playing at home and a comprehensive victory will ensure a bigger crowd for next weekend’s visit from Ireland’s Ulster, which features former Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff.

    The Stormers, since the URC’s inception three seasons ago, have been the most consistent South African performer, but this season Jake White’s Bulls are leading the South African challenge.

    White’s Bulls are second in the URC league table and they should win on the road against the battling Welsh Dragons.

    The Bulls’ biggest league test comes a week later, against Leinster in Dublin.

    The Sharks, remarkably and incredulously, are last on the table, with just one win, and South Africa’s Player of the Year, lock Eben Etzebeth, has said ‘enough is enough’. He has urged his teammates to redress the imbalance and play to their potential when they host Ulster.

    The Lions, a mixed bag this season, are away to Connacht and are more than capable of winning on the road.

    The weekend match-ups are such that South Africa could win all four matches and that would be the most significant signal to the local rugby public that the URC is back because it feels like it has been gone for way too long.

    Photo: Dave Winter/INPHO/Shutterstock

    Article written by

    Keo has written about South African and international rugby professionally for the last 25 years