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Still the right move for South African rugby?


So the dust has settled on the inaugural United Rugby Championship tournament, with the Stormers celebrating a deserved first championship win over the Bulls at the Green Point Stadium in Cape Town.

It was a tense final, with plenty of good old South African derby physicality, but as a showcase of ambitions it was marred a bit by the mother city showing her own support with a storm dropping a month’s worth of rain prior to the game.

The pitch-side lakes were a small indication of the slippery conditions underfoot and the handling errors to come.

Despite starting with a bang, the Bulls were unable to convert early dominance into points and the Stormers – like they have all season – grew into the game to eventually outlast and outscore their opponents 18-13.

The man of the match was the evergreen Deon Fourie, whose breakdown work singlehandedly killed the Bulls’ momentum in the first half.

At the final whistle, the restricted capacity crowd of 31,000 went in raptures for finally shedding the chokers tag with a win made all the sweeter as a reversal of that 2010 Super Rugby final in Soweto.

It was a great day for this Stormers fan and a great result for SA rugby.

But as they say – sometimes it’s not the destination that counts but the journey itself.

So how did a tournament that started on the 24th of September with 16 teams battling it out across 18 rounds of rugby spread across two hemispheres and five countries fare?

Unsurprisingly there has been a wide selection of diametric views from ex-players and pundits on both sides of the hemispheres to its success and failures.

There have been surprises, grinds, blow-outs, a bit of controversy, a touch of drudge and a whole lot of quality rugby played in a whole lot of places in a variety of conditions. Coming from this fan, with his romantic nostalgia for the old Super Rugby, it’s been pretty damn good.

So was it the right move for SA Rugby?

At a team level, things didn’t start too rosily. The leading domestic team from the Republic, the Bulls, were on the receiving end of a thorough shellacking from the reigning champs from Ireland, Leinster, in the first round.

Cornal Hendricks of Vodacom Bulls celebrates winning a penalty during the United Rugby Championship Semi-Final match between Leinster and Vodacom Bulls at the RDS Arena in Dublin. (Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

(Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

It was the harbinger to continued pain as the SA teams were deprived of their Boks, braais and koeksisters, and they were frustrated with the difference in refereeing style and inclement weather. They bumbled along to a record of four wins in 16 games.

After a mere four rounds and propping the bottom of the log, the naysayers were already out in force with the expected injection of SA competitiveness being in short supply.

Things really switched around when the Boks came back and teams returned home to their relative strongholds. The inclement weather and soft grounds reversed to heat, altitude, hard ground and Steve Hofmeyr.

The boot was now firmly on the other foot, with a mere two teams winning a game in the Republic. Connacht and Edinburgh (in torrential rain) were the sides able to get over the line versus the Lions and Sharks respectively.

Suddenly the SA teams were in the ascendancy and were challenging the Irish hegemony at the top of the table.

This is what the competition needed. The final log revealed an excellent return of three SA teams in the top five – Leinster, Stormers, Ulster, Bulls and Sharks. The Lions finished way out of contention in 12th.

The two finalists then navigated their way past very tricky Irish opposition with the Bulls pulling off the heist of the century, beating the mighty Leinster at home at the RDS.

The Stormers followed their customary chew-your-nails-off, buzzer-beater finish against the dangerous Ulster. From there, the rest is history, as they say.

On face value, for a new season and format that also had its share of COVID disruption, this is an excellent return. But as the future lifeblood for South African rugby and its partners, we need to look at other factors.

Upsides

Money
The necessary evil. While it’s not all encompassing, we do know that the broadcast deal went from US$35.2 million for the Pro14 to US$77.4 million (US$4.8 million per team) per annum for the URC.

That is significantly less than the enormous US$120 million per annum for the Top14 (US$8.5 million per team) but despite an additional US$25 million probably on par with the Gallagher Premiership (US$3.84 million per team) due to the higher logistic costs involved.

It’s hard to do a direct comparison on whether this is of higher value than the supposed US$82 million per annum Super Rugby deal (US$5.85 million per team) for two reasons.

One, the amount included the NPC broadcast value and two, it was widely accepted that Super Rugby was the most expensive tournament to run in the world due to exorbitant logistics costs.

So I think we can widely accept that the URC has lead to a more lucrative arrangement for SA Rugby due the much lower costs involved. There is also the increased opportunity of additional revenue (and cost) in the Challenge and Champions Cup participation for next year.

Perhaps the best indicator is the adding of a few sandbags against the flood of player exodus, with the number of players in their prime either staying in SA or returning such as Eben Etzebeth, Rohan van Rensburg and Joseph Dweba.

Eben Etzebeth

(Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

They are very good signs as the more talent concentrated onshore, the higher the standard of competition and the better the players get.

Growth
From an exposure point of view, in its first season, the viewer numbers have easily eclipsed the old Pro14 numbers with averages over one million per round and growing through its hybrid FTA, streaming and pay TV offerings.

The 20 million plus seasonal audience was a glowing endorsement for a tournament long seen as second or third class to the Top14 and Premiership and it bodes very well to future commercial iterations.

Considering that we used to get nearly a million viewers per game from SA in Super Rugby, it’s conceivable that these numbers will go up exponentially now that the SA public are beginning to warm to the tournament.

Game play
I will be honest, I had my doubts about how much our game would improve being in a northern hemisphere competition.

After all, for so long the perceived barometer (and for good reason) has been set by the southern hemisphere.

However the truth of the matter is that teams from the north have for quite some time not played like the stereotypical northern hemisphere.

Tempo, offloads and quick ruck speed are the new mantras and for the most part, it’s been very pleasing on the eye, with enough diversity and variation to keep it interesting.

This in turn has driven an evolution in play style, specifically for the Bulls and Stormers where the power of the pack has been aligned with tempo, keeping the ball alive and smart play.

It’s been a pleasantly surprising journey to say the least, in part driven by having a clean slate and lower expectations to work from.

How it translates at an international level in the Rugby Championship remains to be seen but for now it’s great to see a bit more flair.

Travel
At first this was the most endearing aspect of Super Rugby, with games in exotic locations, but later was just part of the same old grind.

With 12-hour overnight flights, I certainly don’t think anyone in SA will miss those 24-hour travel journeys across multiple time zones.

For the European sides, it’s going to take a little bit of time to adapt to. But on the whole, it is definitely a net improvement on this front.

For fans, I did enjoy those games at the SFS and Suncorp but a night out in Dublin is way, way better.

Interest
It’s been a pretty good start for the URC. South Africans are definitely becoming more engaged with the tournament, the Irish finally have some competition, Scottish teams made up two of the final eight and even the home of the Italian cellar dwellers had over a million viewers.

Sione Tuipulotu

(Photo By Seb Daly/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

The Welsh teams, participation and interest have been hotly debated, perhaps because of the SA teams excluding them from Champions Cup next season.

But given they didn’t win a single game this season, it speaks of deeper rooted issues beyond that of the URC to resolve.

Team reports

A+ Stormers
They won but certainly at times made it hard on themselves and their supporters.

They played a very interesting multi-playmaker style using the triple running threat of Manie Libbok, Damian Willemse and Warrick Gelant to create space for the lethal Leolin Zas and Seabelo Senatla out wide.

They were the only SA side that noticeably played out the back to beat the rush defence. The pack was not as dominant as it was of old but still very hand with the Boks’ front row, break-down pest Deon Fourie and future superstar Evan Roos.

They are a power lock short at the moment.

A- Bulls
To come back from shellacking in the RDS in Round 1 and then to beat Leinster from Ireland at the same venue in a semi-final eight months later takes some serious growth.

They finished the season with the highest number of offloads. They have always had a direct power game but are moving toward an up-tempo, keep-the-ball-alive style.

While they do still contest the air a lot, this is not the seminal Jake-ball team. The old dog has definitely learnt a few new tricks.

C- Sharks
A pass mark for making the finals but given their ever increasing ranks of Boks, they have seriously underwhelmed.

With a game plan that is too heavily reliant on bossing teams in the forwards and lacking in attacking variation, they are going to have limited progression.

A change in coaching staff would probably be required. I would like to see a seasoned international coach like Jeremy Cotter or Ronan O’Gara bring more dimension or flavour to their game.

D- Lions
I feel for the Lions. Whenever they develop or uncover a star player, they get poached by an SA or French team.

With the captain, star prop and loose leaving at the end of this season, it looks like it’s back to the drawing board again.

Finishing 12th means they will be playing in the Challenge Cup next year but with slim pickings at Currie Cup level (they came last) and a lack of continuity, it would appear the Lions’ struggles will continue.

Similar to the Lions, a change in coaching would help. Jimmy Stonehouse would be my pick. He has done wonders with the Pumas and knows how to get the best out of limited resources.

Challenges

Season length
While it’s great to provide continued, top-level exposure to your squad, at around four months longer than Super Rugby, the season is very long.

In Super Rugby, you would play 16 regular season games, and 19 if you made the final. URC is 18 and 21 if you make the final.

Throw in the Champions or Challenge Cup and Currie Cup, and teams are going to have potentially another 23 games to cover in the regular season, some of which will also be without the Boks during the Rugby Championship and end-of-year tours.

Fighting battles on multiple fronts means squad management and sustaining strength in depth is going to be extremely key going forward.

The only way to do so without having a Toulon-sized budget is having excellent alignment through club or varsity to academy and then to the pro level of the Currie Cup, URC and Champions squads.

So far the only SA team close to this are the Bulls, who got both Currie Cup and URC teams to the respective semis or finals. This is an achievement but as they lost both, they are aware there is still work to be done.

It’s no secret that Jake White is a big admirer of the Leinster model and has been working on putting similar structures and alignment in place.

A general view of a lineout at sunset

(Photo by Richard Heathcote – World Rugby via Getty Images)

The other SA sides have a lot to do on this front. The Stormers have the young talent but they have inept governance and a schism between the Currie Cup (second last) style and URC team.

The Sharks are going the Toulon route and buying depth in preparation for next year and the Lions are struggling to hold onto any squad in either competition.

So this will be a huge challenge but if done right. We could see the Leinster-model gains at an exponential scale – 50-60 seasoned players per franchise that can seamlessly slot in at a high level.

It is great for the franchises and great for the Boks … if done right.

Champions and Challenge Cups
The challenge here is multiple – firstly having a squad that can cover the multiple competition requirements against the best sides in Europe.

Secondly, having a game plan for the French sides that are the match or better in the physical exchanges.

Lastly, learning to win away from home at traditionally very difficult venues.

It’s all good dominating in South African conditions but great sides overcome teams everywhere. If we want to be great in Europe, then we need to overcome this hurdle.

Talent loss
It’s great that some talent is heading back on shore but by participating in Europe, we are also putting that talent on a sushi train for every well heeled European club.

Key names such as Warrick Gelant, Madosh Tambwe and half the Bulls pack have already signed with French sides for next season.

Given SA is already a net exporter, the only way this can be stemmed is to bring more finances in to improve player contracts and do our best to retain them.

Game play
As the SA teams are adapting to the European teams, so are they also adapting, which means the power game returns will diminish over time and SA teams and ultimately the Boks will have to evolve.

That is not a bad thing overall really, but it will take nuance to not lose the traditional strength along the way.

Summary
Perhaps it’s because we are winning and that’s a good feeling but there is definitely a sense of great optimism in this new tournament and European rugby in general.

Yes, it doesn’t have the history of Super Rugby yet but it’s fresh, commercially viable, competitive and very watchable – all the traits that were vanishing in the convoluted death throes of Super Rugby.

In this sense – despite some challenges ahead – the move north definitely seems to have been the right choice at the right time for SA rugby.





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