World Cup year is all set for a February take-off

rugby31 January 2023 09:39| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich

The Springboks are heading into a four week break and the Vodacom United Rugby Championship is getting less busy while not quite stopping completely, but in some senses the month of February looks set to feel like what it used to be - the start of the rugby year.

In between the clutch of crucial derbies that will have a big impact on the respective Shields in the URC, and the continuation of the HSBC World Sevens Series, which heads to Los Angeles at the end of this month, February sees the start of the Six Nations in the northern hemisphere as well as the local Varsity Cup and Shield competitions. And while way down south there is no longer participation from South Africa in Super Rugby, the southern hemisphere season will start for Australia and New Zealand in the same way it has for the last nearly 30 years - with the renamed Pacific Super Rugby tournament.

For the players and fans in the Antipodes it is the start of the World Cup season. There will be no break to their season before the start of RWC 2023 in France in September, and everything will be focussed on rugby's global showpiece.There will be a break in the northern season, with almost all the teams using a substantial part of the time off for training camps, as the 2022/2023 season in the UK and Europe, like the professional season in South Africa now, officially ends in June. However, with the number of games before the World Cup now in single digits, this Six Nations will form a huge part of the preparation for France, Ireland, Wales, England, Scotland and Italy.

The South African professional season has shifted to align with the northern competitions, the URC and the Heineken Champions Cup, but you could say the domestic season starts with the Varsity Cup, which this year kicks off slightly later than in the past, on 20 February. Apart from providing great weekday summer evening entertainment for rugby followers in South Africa, the Varsity Cup is now an important feeder to the professional franchises and will be watched eagerly by those responsible for talent identification and succession planning.

Here is what you can expect when it comes to February rugby fare:

Vodacom United Rugby Championship continues

There was supposed to be a three week break for all teams now until a double header of South African derbies on 18 February, one of which features the appetising north/south return showdown between the Vodacom Bulls and the DHL Stormers, but an early round postponement changed that for the Stormers and the Cell C Sharks.

They clash at 14.00 at Hollywoodbets Kings Park on Saturday in what will be their first meeting in exactly a year. The two teams played each other home and away in successive weeks over the last weekend of January and the first weekend of February in 2021/2022 but there has been no coastal derby since then.

It is an important game for both sides, with the Stormers having lost the impressive position they had created for themselves over the festive period and the Sharks desperately needing to win if they are to keep hopes of a Shield win alive. If they do win, the game between the Bulls and Stormers a fortnight later will potentially be for leadership of the SA Shield.

A week after the Bulls/Stormers and Emirates Lions/Sharks clash, Ulster and Glasgow Warriors will arrive in the country for the matches against the Sharks and Lions respectively that were postponed by a tummy bug in October.

Six Nations

It all starts this Saturday, with Wales hosting Ireland and Scotland visiting Twickenham, while champions France are off to Rome on Sunday to play Italy. There will be particular interest in the England and Welsh performances as both teams are under new coaches. Wayne Pivac was sacked by Wales after the autumn international series and Eddie Jones suffered the same fate with England.

The new Welsh coach is only new in a sense, for Warren Gatland was at the helm for many years before relinquishing the position after the 2019 Rugby World Cup to focus on his job as coach of the 2021 British and Irish Lions as well as return for a stint to his native New Zealand to head up the team he represented as a player, the Chiefs.

Steve Borthwick is also not entirely new to England as he did serve as Jones’ forwards coach up until 2019, and his star has been on a steady rise in English rugby circles ever since due to the success he achieved as head coach of the Leicester Tigers. It is a big call to replace a coach so soon before a World Cup though, so it is going to be an interesting time for both Wales and England.

The Six Nations has been given new impetus and added status by the rise of the top two teams from last year’s competition, France and Ireland, to the top of the World Rugby Rankings. Ireland are currently top, but France won the Six Nations last season and many think of them as the best team in the world.

France got full points from their five games last year to end on 25, with Ireland second on 21. Then there was a yawning gap to the third placed team, England, who won just two of five games and ended on 10 points. That was the same number of log points as Scotland, but England had a superior points difference.

Varsity Cup and Varsity Shield

The second tier university competition gets underway this year four days before the premier event, with the Shield participants all vying to top their competition so they can be promoted to the premier table in 2024. Last year’s exciting Varsity Cup season certainly provided a great advert for why everyone wants to be a part of it.

Tukkies will this year start as champions following their thrilling win in last year’s final, with Bernard van der Linde completing a brilliant comeback for the Pretoria students, who looked out of it, by scoring the winning try as late as the 78th minute.

However, while the Maties ended up being disappointed, that they and Tukkies ended up in the final at all was a surprise as Shimlas topped the overall log with UCT second. Both those teams enjoyed exemplary league seasons but then fell short in home semifinals and they will be eager to correct that this time around.

The first round of Varsity Cup will be played on Monday, 20 February, and from past experience it will be like a runaway train once it gets underway.

Super Rugby Pacific

The Brumbies were the outlier in an otherwise all Kiwi last four in the 2022 edition of the competition, and Australians will be hoping that not only the Brumbies produce a repeat performance, and maybe even go a bit further by making the final, but also that one of the other teams joins them in the semifinals.

Crusaders start the 2023 competition as champions - who else? - and as it has been for much of the past eight years, it is all about breaking the hegemony of the team from New Zealand’s south island. However, last year they were pushed, and it was in fact the Blues from Auckland that ended up as league winners.

The final was played between the Blues and Crusaders in Auckland, with the Blues spitting the dummy a bit in their biggest game for several seasons, with Crusaders ending up deserved 21-7 winners. The final wasn’t quite as one-sided as that scoreline might appear, but it was a chastening night for Auckland and they will be looking to make up for it by going all the way this year.

This competition starts on Friday, 24 February.