UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
SA contenders must make their own luck in northern hemisphere as Irish endgame looms
Traditionally, home teams have had a significant advantage in European tournaments. This year won’t be any different.
South Africa’s strongest contenders find themselves needing a miracle or two to win the United Rugby Championship (URC) title.
Although the quarterfinal in Cape Town will allow either the Stormers or the Bulls to build some momentum before the most challenging phase of the knockouts, the odds are against a South African team cracking on to win a semifinal and final in northern hemisphere conditions.
In one sense, this is where South African teams want to be.
The Springboks were written off before the 2019 World Cup final, yet went on to smash an overconfident England side by 20 points. Most expected Leinster to hammer the Bulls in last year’s semifinal staged in Dublin, yet it was the Bulls who dominated to claim a memorable victory.
With this in mind, some might look at the upcoming URC playoffs, as well as all the predictions for an Irish champion, and declare that the conditions are conducive to another South African ambush.
No longer under the radar
And yet, so much has changed since last season. South Africa’s teams aren’t flying under the radar any longer. The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers all made an early exit from the Champions Cup playoffs, but are unlikely to be underestimated by their Irish counterparts in the coming URC knockouts.
Leinster, who dominated the previous version of the URC, will be determined to show all and sundry who’s boss after last year’s disappointment. Ulster, who lost to the Stormers in last year’s semifinal in Cape Town, will be out for revenge.
The Bulls, Stormers and Sharks, who will travel to Dublin for the quarterfinals, will have to make their own luck in playoff matches abroad. They will need to alter their tactics to account for the wind and the rain, as well as the unique style of refereeing.
SA collective’s 34% win rate overseas
Traditionally, home teams have had a significant advantage in these European tournaments. The addition of the South African teams in recent years has amplified the challenge for travelling teams, and as the stats show, most teams continue to struggle when they leave their country or hemisphere.
Across all European rugby and URC matches played in the northern hemisphere this season, the five SA franchises have combined for a dismal win record of 14 in 41 matches. No team won in Ireland across the URC league stage, although the Stormers secured a draw when they played an understrength Leinster in Dublin earlier this year.
The Bulls remain the only side to have won a match in Ireland since SA Rugby took its teams to the north in 2021. Over this two-year period, the overall record for South African teams on Irish soil reads: one win, one draw and 15 losses.
To be fair, the SA sides have been largely dominant at home, winning 23 out of 25 matches against foreign opposition in the 2021-22 URC, and 29 out of 35 against the touring contingent across the URC and European tournaments this season.
Irish beginning to buck the trend
The four Irish clubs, however, have made progress in the republic over the past few months. After losing seven of their eight matches in South Africa last season, they claimed four wins and a draw across the corresponding games staged in the 2022-23 URC.
Munster were thrashed 50-35 by the Sharks in a Champions Cup quarterfinal staged in Durban in March. A month later, they returned to SA to secure a historic URC win against the Stormers in Cape Town, followed by a valuable draw in Durban.
Those results had a massive impact on the final standings.
While they boast fewer wins in South Africa, Leinster continue to lead the way in terms of managing their squad and achieving a high win rate across two tournaments. Last year, they sent a young squad on a two-game tour of SA, and kept their star players in Ireland ahead of the URC and Champions Cup playoffs. They adopted the same approach this season – and a team shorn of stars beat the Lions in Joburg before losing 62-7 to the Bulls in Pretoria.
Some might focus on the latter result, but when you step back to consider the bigger picture, it’s clear how Leinster are winning on multiple fronts. They travelled to South Africa knowing that they had secured a first-place finish in the URC standings – and home advantage for the playoffs. They identified the two-game block as an opportunity to rest their stars, which was a fair ploy given that a Champions Cup semifinal showdown with Toulouse was scheduled for 29 April, and a URC quarterfinal a week later.
It remains to be seen when a South African franchise will develop to the point where it can manage its personnel in this manner. There are a number of unique challenges that continue to hold the local franchises back.
Until these teams show that they can win overseas on a regular basis over the course of the league phase, they cannot be mentioned in the same breath as a Leinster or any other title contenders.
As was the case last year – and in many a Super Rugby season before that – the South African fans will look ahead to the playoffs and hope for the best, yet expect the worst. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.