Sport

UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP

URC went from an interesting experiment in 2022 to a world-class competition in 2023

URC went from an interesting experiment in 2022 to a world-class competition in 2023
Munster captain Peter O’Mahony (right) and teammate Conor Murray celebrate with the trophy after winning the United Rugby Championship grand final against the Stormers at DHL Stadium in Cape Town on 27 May 2023. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

The United Rugby Championship was a very good tournament. After this year’s final, it might have been elevated to a great tournament.

Stormers fans won’t want to hear it, but Munster’s victory in the United Rugby Championship (URC) final was a win for the entire tournament. And, by extension, a long-term win for the Stormers and the other 15 teams in the competition.

The URC was a very good tournament. After this year’s final, it has been elevated to a great tournament.

It needed a cross-hemisphere contest to raise interest and the protagonists that met on the field both had compelling narratives. For differing reasons, both were teams a neutral could get behind.

Munster, trophyless for 12 years before their 19-14 victory in Cape Town in the pompously named “Grand Final”, was a great club without any silverware to back it up. They’d been through several classy coaches such as Rassie Erasmus and Jacques Nienaber to regain their place in the winner’s circle and come up short.

The club and the community suffered when former coach Anthony “Axel” Foley died on the eve of a European Cup match in France in 2016, forcing Erasmus into the coaching role. And despite coming close, they could not get over the line for more than a decade.

On a less tragic note, captain Peter O’Mahony, perhaps one of the hardest men in rugby and someone who spilt more blood and sweat for Munster than almost anybody in history, had not won anything at the club. That changed last Saturday in what was surely one of Munster’s greatest days.

urc final

Munster’s South African lock RG Snyman (centre) passes the ball during the final. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

“The club has lost special people in that time, Pete (O’Mahony) spoke brilliantly about it at the end,” an emotional Munster coach Graham Rowntree said.

“It’s a special group, a number of players have waited patiently – Pete being one of those – to win a trophy.

“I’m immensely proud of this group, delighted for the whole of the province and its people who are here now… the playing group, their families, their kids watching, the supporters, the red army that followed us here… unbelievable.”

Of course, Munster’s local rivalry with Leinster will remain a high point of any season, but coming to South Africa and beating the Stormers in Cape Town took some doing. In fact, winning a vital pool match at the DHL Stadium in April was the catalyst for Munster’s run to the final.

Thousands of Munster fans made it to Cape Town for the final, adding to the international flavour of the event. The intertwining of Europe and Africa in this tournament has taken off, thanks to the outcome.

Leinster have lost two URC semifinals in successive years, which presumably must sting. They might be a side more focused on European Champions Cup glory, but continued URC failure will only serve to make them more desperate in this competition. 

Stormers continue to defy odds

On the other side of the ledger, the Stormers, although defending champions after winning the inaugural 2022 URC title, are a team still teetering on the brink of existence.

Their 2022 triumph came at home against the Bulls. It felt important, yet it also felt familiar. Home derbies have their place, but an international tournament needs international rivalries to spice it up, and the Stormers and Munster have created one now.

That 2022 victory was achieved despite political turmoil at the Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU) and this year’s run to the final also came against a fragile backdrop.

urc final munster

Munster players celebrate after winning the grand final. (Photo: Ashley Vlotman / Gallo Images)

The WPRFU, the umbrella body under which the Stormers fall, remains in administration. And there is no guarantee they will suddenly find financial prosperity in the short term.

The union’s survival depends on the sale of the Newlands rugby ground developments rights, which has stalled several times.

The most recent setback happened in the week of the final against Munster. On the Monday before the showpiece, former Springbok captain and professional architect Wynand Claassen successfully lodged an appeal to fight a heritage claim over the crumbling stadium.

He was the, er, architect behind an original claim late last year to have Newlands declared a heritage site.

Heritage Western Cape studied the claim in detail and put it to the test through a wide range of criteria under the National Heritage and Resources Act. The conclusion: Newlands was not a heritage site and therefore could be sold for redevelopment.

But Claassen has now appealed, which is further delaying progress on several fronts. All the while, the WPRFU’s interest on a R113-million 2020 loan from property developer Flyt, mounts.

The WPRFU now owes in excess of R250-million and it urgently needs to conclude the business of offloading Newlands to pay off its bad debt and reclaim the title deeds to 11 other WPRFU properties signed over to Flyt as security for the loan.

Equity deal in pipeline

After 20 months in administration, there is a buyer for Newlands and there is a healthy equity offer on the table for a stake in the Stormers.

The equity deal looks set to go ahead even if the Newlands situation is not resolved as the two, while connected, are not mutually exclusive. But hurdles remain because any decision taken by the administrator must go back to the 102 clubs that make up the WPRFU’s general council for ratification.

Fortunately, though, administration has brought some on-field stability for the Stormers and coach John Dobson has largely been able to focus his energy on the business of producing a successful rugby team.

urc final dobson

Stormers head coach John Dobson has created a team with a purpose that extends beyond simply winning. (Photo: Tyler Miller / Sportsfile / Gallo Images)

Munster and the Stormers were certainly two stories that transcended the linear business of playing rugby matches and winning.

Another aspect of why the 2023 URC final lifted the tournament to a new level was the sight of a DHL Stadium brimming with 57,334 fans for the big game.

It felt and looked vital and the images beamed around the world, with breathtaking shots of the Mother City, ensured that the URC final was arguably the best event in the long history of the tournament in its various guises.

Big finals must be played in appropriate arenas. Few are better than the world-class facility in Green Point.

“Munster has a powerful and great rugby tradition and story,” Dobson said.

“To win six games in a row (Munster were unbeaten in five games, including the 22-22 draw with the Sharks) is impressive, especially on the road because the home team winning, especially in the Champions Cup, became formulaic.

“This occasion was spectacular because last season (against the Bulls) felt like a local derby that happened to be called the URC.

“This final felt like an international.”

Indeed, it did. The URC has arrived. DM

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