UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
SA teams struggle in early stages of URC due to lack of Boks and tough draws
South Africa’s teams are apparently stuck in a Rugby World Cup hangover at franchise level after a chastening weekend in the United Rugby Championship.
The United Rugby Championship (URC) might only be into its third edition, but it has never had only one team from South Africa in the top eight after five rounds of action.
That is the reality of the situation in 2023. Only the Bulls sit in a playoff position nearly a third of the way through the regular season — and they are languishing in seventh place.
There is still a lot of rugby to be played and the situation will continue to alter weekly. The Bulls fell from first at the end of round four to seventh at the end of round five, underlining how tight it is.
Last weekend, though, was only the second time in the tournament’s history that all four South African sides lost in the same round. It happened in round two of the inaugural 2021/22 season, but on that occasion, all four SA sides were on tour.
This past weekend, the Sharks enjoyed home-ground advantage against Connacht, losing 13-12 for their sixth straight defeat of the season.
Other than centre Lukhanyo Am, who made his comeback for the Sharks last week, the rest of the Springbok’s triumphant World Cup-winning squad were on the sidelines to recover.
Am looked sharp in his first outing for three months, with some deft touches and solid defence against the Irish side. But even his presence was not enough to guide the Sharks to their first win of the campaign.
The Stormers lost 10-3 in difficult conditions in Limerick against defending champions Munster in a repeat of last year’s final, which wasn’t a disaster. But they are now 2-3 on the season.
The Bulls are 3-2 after losing 31-23 to Edinburgh in Edinburgh where they played with 14 men for much of the match and 13 men for 10 minutes.
The Lions fought hard in treacherous conditions against Ulster before going down 24-17. Despite the defeats, there were many good moments for the SA teams.
The draw has been tough on some sides, such as the Sharks, who started their campaign with four games on the road including match-ups against Irish powerhouses Munster and Leinster.
The Bulls have just completed a four-match tour with one win. Coach Jake White is unhappy with the fixture list.
“I keep on reminding you that it is four weeks on tour and we are going to have to look and see whether this is the way we want to keep it in future,” White said after the loss to Edinburgh.
“This is a massive advantage for the home teams when South African sides are away for four weeks. One of the reasons we had to leave Super Rugby was we wouldn’t have to be away from home for a month.
“I’m sure that we will have to look at that because you can see what sort of toll it takes on the team. Four weeks away from home is tough.
“I was chatting to some of the local coaches here, and some teams when they play in Italy, they fly in and out on the same day. Some teams travel from Edinburgh in Scotland to Wales and they fly the same day, it’s almost like going to Cape Town [from Pretoria] and back on the same day.
“I don’t think people appreciate how tough it is for South African sides to be away for four weeks with the reduced number of players. With a reduced squad, you can’t have the same training sessions, [with] rotation at training.”
The Sharks perhaps played too much rugby in sticky, muggy and slippery conditions in Durban last week. It’s in keeping with coach John Plumtree’s new philosophy of a more ball-in-hand approach and more ruthlessness from turnover.
Am, who will be a major link in the reworked Sharks’ approach given his natural ball-playing ability, is confident it will come right with more time together.
“I think once we get the individuals to sharpen up and be able to execute the style of play we want to play week in, week out, we’ll be very dangerous,” Am said on Tuesday.
“It’s still only the beginning of the season so we still have quite some time to sharpen up things, to catch up. It’s happened in the past with Munster, the Stormers … it’s still early for us to throw the kitchen sink.
“We’re definitely working towards something bigger than us and looking forward to the rest of the season. We are going in the right direction and it’s about time we get the results because we are a learning team and a growing team, and it’s another one at home this weekend.
“We’ve got certain players back from national duties in terms of prep and showing off their experiences to the group, and I’m looking forward to this game.”
It’s likely that more returning Boks could be deployed against the Dragons this weekend, with scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse likely to play. Fellow halfback Grant Williams could also be unleashed in round six.
Attack coach David Williams did not confirm which Boks would be back, but hinted that there would be changes to the side for the match.
“We’ve used this week with the Sharks players returning from the World Cup to celebrate their achievements with them, and [they] brought a huge amount of energy with them to the organisation,” Williams said.
“In terms of players available for selection, anyone who is fit is available for selection and that will obviously be named later in the week.
“We’ve spoken as a group around evolving our game and building pressure with the ball and through our transition game, and we’re seeing rewards in terms of making line breaks.
“But the focus is about getting those conversions on the back of good rugby. There’s a real excitement to take the rewards that our game is creating for us.”
The Stormers need to snap their three-match losing streak in Cardiff on a 4G (fourth-generation artificial) surface at the Arms Park this weekend.
The synthetic playing surfaces have been another adjustment SA teams have had to make, and they haven’t done it well.
When playing on the synthetic surface, said Stormers centre Ruhan Nel, “You almost feel like you are half a metre too quick. You don’t have that resistance underneath your feet that you would on grass.
“You feel quicker when you are running and you get up to top speed a lot quicker. The threat is there from over-running. You need to be aware that you need to give yourself time on the ball.
“It’s a completely different dynamic. The breakdowns are quicker, you get there quicker. I was lucky enough to experience the 4G a few years ago with the sevens, but I haven’t played on this sort of pitch since the URC started, I was either injured or not involved in the game.
“There’s a big difference from playing on grass, but it’s just about creating some time for ourselves and not rushing decisions.” DM