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Contrasting nature of URC underlines its value in preparing players for Test rugby

Contrasting nature of URC underlines its value in preparing players for Test rugby
Ruben van Heerden of the DHL Stormers during the match between Hollywoodbets Sharks and Emirates Lions on 17 February 2024 in Durban. (Photo: Steve Haag Sports/Gallo Images)

The wide range of contrasting conditions and styles, as well as tough competition, is underlining the value of the United Rugby Championship (URC) in preparing players for Test rugby.

With 23 players from the Bulls and Stormers invited to next week’s Springbok alignment camp, their URC clash at Loftus on 2 March does feel like a mini Test trial.

In among the platoon of established Springboks such as Willie le Roux, Frans Malherbe, Damian Willemse, Marco van Staden, Kurt-Lee Arendse and Manie Libbok, there is a group of brilliant youngsters who have been raised in the URC, who are ready for the next step. 

Players such as Stormers lock Ruben van Heerden, utility backs Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu and Suleiman Hartzenberg, Bulls looseforwards Cameron Hanekom and Mpilo Gumede are part of this new breed.

The fact that there are 16 uncapped players in the 43-man Bok alignment camp group invited by coach Rassie Erasmus, also underlines that URC is proving to be a quality tournament to prepare future Test players.

Mpilo Gumede of the Vodacom Bulls and Morne van den Berg of the Emirates Lions during the URC match between Vodacom Bulls and Emirates Lions at Loftus Versfeld on 27 January 27 2024 in Pretoria. (Photo: Christiaan Kotze/Gallo Images)

Exposure to Test demands

Former Bok skipper Jean de Villiers, who played years of Super Rugby, but also competed in the northern hemisphere with Munster, is convinced the URC is a good competition to expose players to Test rugby demands. 

“The URC prepares the players for that level up, and Test rugby is very definitely a level up,” De Villiers said this week.

“The skill level is improving in the game and that’s the beauty of the URC. As a player, you’re playing in different conditions every week. You are testing yourself and your skill set in different conditions and you are improving as a player because you’re doing that more and more.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Bongi back for Sharks in United Rugby Championship derby weekend 

“Then making the step up to Test level is actually easier. It’s never easy, but it becomes a lot easier when you’ve tested it at a URC level, week in and week out, and can now apply it at the highest level, which is Test match rugby.”

Six Nations benefits

The current Six Nations, which resumes this weekend with some big clashes including England against Scotland, is also showing that the gap between the URC and Test rugby is not that wide. 

“The talk going into the Six Nations was the loss of Johnny Sexton for Ireland, but Jack Crowley’s exposure in the URC has definitely helped him make the step up to international rugby,” De Villiers said.

“I don’t think that can be underestimated. The pressure of playing in a URC Grand Final at the DHL Stadium, and getting it across the line with Munster against the Stormers — that experience is huge in terms of a youngster moving into such a pivotal role for a very good Ireland team, and filling the boots of a player like Sexton.

“You can also look at the Welsh team. They never fully capitalised on England playing with only 13 men, but this is a young Welsh team that were 14-5 ahead at halftime, and definitely showed they can mix it up with a top team at Twickenham.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Springboks’ busy 2024 schedule completed with confirmation of Wales clash at Twickenham

“This last round in the Six Nations once again showed the small margins between winning and losing. You can talk about the Scotland try not being allowed, but the scoreboard stands.

“We’ve seen it in the URC from a Glasgow point of view and maybe to a lesser extent Edinburgh, who play an extremely entertaining brand of rugby, and then trying to emulate that at international level where one or two errors costs you the game. 

“You need to cut down on those mistakes, and the URC prepares players for this. The Irish haven’t missed a beat in this Six Nations, and they’ve shown in the URC just how consistent they are, especially Leinster, who make up the bulk of the Ireland team.

“We’ve seen it in the URC that to beat an Irish team you need to be very sharp because they hardly have an off day.” 

Jack Crowley of Munster during the URC final between DHL Stormers and Munster at DHL Stadium on 27 May 2023 in Cape Town. (Photo: Grant Pitcher/Gallo Images)

Lions roaring 

Back with matters South African, and the Lions have also provided six players to the alignment camp, five of them in the backline, which is a boost for the union. 

Ruan Venter, Sanele Nobamba, Quan Horn, Jordan Hendrikse, Henco van Wyk and Morné van den Berg have all been asked to attend.

The Lions have not had much success since making three consecutive Super Rugby finals between 2016-2018, but they are slowly making progress.

Former Bok fullback and national backline coach Ricardo Loubscher has quietly built a formidable unit at Ellis Park.

Loubscher’s view

The naturally effusive Loubscher, who was the Boks assistant coach under Heyneke Meyer between 2012-2015, refused to take any credit for the players’ hard work. But he has certainly played a role in their development, while the URC has given them the platform to improve, adapt and to showcase their talents.

“The preparation, attention to detail, getting a feel of training with someone like a Pieter-Steph du Toit, is something that will benefit them [at the Bok training camp],” Loubscher said this week.

“I hope when they come back, all the intellectual property will filter through to our players and our squad. Who knows, maybe we will see five more players there. 

“You look at the names they picked — Hencu, Quan, Sanele, Jordan, Morne, Ruan — these players have an X-factor that they bring to our team, and hopefully they can take the same to the next level. 

“We hope they will get an opportunity to take it further than just the alignment camp, but we are all excited, we are excited for them. And I think that is a step in the right direction for us.” DM

 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “As a player, you’re playing in different conditions every week.”

    Well said, Jean. But to add probably the two most important things of all for me “not suffering interminable jetlag or the suffocating influence of the NZRU”. At last, at last. And as implied, the game as a whole is gaining. These are amazing times for rugby union.

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