Harsh lessons in Europe will benefit South African teams

Josh van der Flier of Leinster scores his side's first try despite the tackle by Madosh Tambwe (left) and Ruan Nortje of Vodacom Bulls during the United Rugby Championship match between Leinster Rugby and Bulls at Aviva Stadium on 25 September 2021 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo: Harry Murphy / Gallo Images)

Despite a slow start in the United Rugby Championship, South African sides will improve as they adapt to the rigours of playing in Europe.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Two former Springbok players with extensive experience of northern-hemisphere conditions have called for patience following the South African franchises’ poor start to the inaugural United Rugby Championship (URC) tournament.

Recent results suggest that the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers may be out of their depth. But those in the know believe that these teams will improve as they adapt to the unique demands of this competition.

The four South African franchises have combined for seven losses in eight games over the first two rounds of the URC. These teams – which have been stripped of their Springboks and boast relatively few players with experience of European conditions – were always expected to battle on a four-week tour of the northern hemisphere.

One-sided results

On the other hand, the manner and margins of defeat in these fixtures, as well as some of the try-scoring stats, have come as a surprise. During the first two rounds, South African teams lost by nine points or more in six out of eight matches. Collectively, they conceded four tries or more in all but one game.

The Lions, Sharks and Stormers blew hot and cold, which prompted many to question the level of conditioning and the team tactics. The biggest and most consistent disappointment, however, was the Bulls.

Jake White’s side sustained heavy losses to Leinster and Connacht. Again, while the match against Pro14 champions Leinster was always expected to be a challenge, the performance by the visitors and ultimately their failure to make an impression – a paltry 10 points and one try scored across 160 minutes – came as a surprise.

The defence, a source of pride for the Bulls during their successful Currie Cup campaign, was breached too regularly. The statistic of nine tries conceded should be cause for concern.

RG Snyman of Munster, supported by Jack O’Donoghue, dives over to score his side’s fifth try, despite the efforts of Leon Lyons of DHL Stormers during the United Rugby Championship match between Munster Rugby and DHL Stormers at Thomond Park on 2 October 2021 in Limerick, Ireland. (Photo: Brendan Moran / Gallo Images)

Too soon to panic

While all four teams have room for improvement, it is too soon to panic.

Former Springbok hooker Schalk Brits, who spent 10 years in the northern hemisphere and won several major titles with English club Saracens, told DM168 that fans shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment, particularly when the South African sides compete abroad.

“They play a different brand of rugby in the northern hemisphere, and you aren’t going to adjust to that style of play overnight,” Brits said. “People need to be patient with our teams. It’s going to be a process over the next year or so as all the players come to grips with the different conditions and approaches.”

Brits recalls his first season with Saracens in 2009. Back then, the club was not the force it is today. After losing heavily to Leicester Tigers, director of rugby Brendan Venter told the Saracens players to mark the defeat as a learning experience.

“That’s what the South African teams have to do during this period,” said Brits. “They might struggle a bit initially, but they must learn from those struggles and make the necessary adjustments.

“It has to be seen as part of the process. It will take a season or two to get it right, but if the franchises have the right structures in place and manage to keep their talent, they will improve. The Bulls and the Sharks are certainly looking good in terms of planning for the long term.”

Drop in standards

The Covid-19 pandemic has set South African rugby back in more ways than one.

The Boks didn’t play any Test rugby in the 2020 season due to travel restrictions. Robbed of the opportunity to compete abroad, the franchises played against one another in various domestic competitions over 12 months. Ultimately the level of competition dropped.

It’s fair to say that neither the Boks nor the franchises were prepared for the step-up in intensity when they eventually received the chance to compete against international opposition in 2021.

The Boks won the series against the British & Irish Lions and two matches against Argentina in South Africa before losing three out of four Rugby Championship Tests in Australia. The Bulls lost the Rainbow Cup final staged in Italy this past June, while all four franchises struggled in the early URC fixtures staged in Europe.

Range of skills required

Former Bok flank Francois Louw began his career with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament before moving to England to represent Bath for more than a decade. He has a good appreciation of what it takes to succeed in either hemisphere, and how much the tactical approach varies from competition to competition.

“There’s long been a comparison between Super Rugby and northern hemisphere rugby over the years,” Louw told DM168. “Super Rugby is generally played at a higher pace because of the good weather conditions that favour a running game. Maybe there’s an assumption that the skills are better in that competition or that more tries are scored. But it would be unwise to underestimate the skill levels of teams up north.

“It’s unbelievably professional in Europe. Tactics will vary from team to team, as will the players at each team’s disposal, but generally, the standard of fitness is very high, and the average player knows that he will have to fight for every inch. There are some very attritional battles, particularly when the weather takes a turn for the worse around winter,” Louw said.

“You can’t really come up north and expect to bully teams off the park. They are going to be ready for that. The leagues are full of top coaches from around the world – and a lot of those coaches come from the southern hemisphere, so there is a good blend of power and skill. That is reflected in the mindset.”

Turning the tables

South African teams must address their overseas form if they are to compete for major titles in future. In the short term, they may be buoyed by the fact that they will play 12 of their remaining 14 URC games in South African conditions from November.

“The European teams are going to battle when they come to South Africa,” said Brits. “I remember what happened in 2008 when Saracens came to play the Stormers in an exhibition game in January during what was our preseason before Super Rugby.

“It was unforgivably hot, and the Saracens guys were asking how we could stand playing in those conditions. Now all the top teams in the URC will have to cope with that when they play South African sides during the southern-hemisphere summer.”

It will take some time for the South African teams to come to terms with the demands of the competition – be it the new challenge of competing in the north or the task of competing throughout a northern-hemisphere season that stretches from September to June.

It won’t get any easier for these teams when they qualify for the Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup competitions in 2022. Player resources will be stretched even further, and good recruitment and management will be crucial. Playing against top English and French clubs in Europe will require another step up.

One would hope that the SA teams land a few significant blows over the next few months. Results aside, the franchises must – as Brits suggests – use every match in this inaugural edition of the URC as an opportunity to learn and improve. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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