SA teams crossing URC and European frontiers will boost Boks

rugby20 June 2024 12:11| © SuperSport
By:Gavin Rich
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Andy Farrell © Getty Images

The extent of the Vodacom Bulls’ achievement in beating Leinster in last week’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship semifinal at Loftus is underlined by a glance through the Ireland squad list as Andy Farrell prepares to bring his world No 2 ranked team to South Africa.

No less than 18 of the 35 players in the group play for Leinster. That’s more than one full starting team that are gaining experience by being part of an international squad. And there were Leinster players you might have expected to be there that were left out. Such as the two Byrne brothers, Ross and Harry. Plus two key injured players in scrumhalf Jackson Gibson-Park and the 46 times capped loose-forward Jack Conan.

So if you look at those omissions and then at the players in the group, there are 22 Leinster players who either boast international experience or, at the very least, will have had experience of being part of the Ireland squad in a big series (promising young flyhalf and utility back Jamie Osborne are two Leinster players in the group who have yet to be capped).


So when Bulls director of rugby Jake White spoke beforehand of the huge disparity in experience and international players between Leinster and his own team, he wasn’t exaggerating. What his players do have now though is the experience of beating a team boasting so much international influence, and some of them have done it twice as we shouldn’t forget the Bulls won an away semifinal against Leinster in 2022.

How many Bulls players will be in the Springbok squad once they become available for the national squad post Saturday’s URC final against Glasgow Warriors? That is anyone’s guess, but there definitely won’t be 18.

If the Bulls do supply some newcomers, with Cameron Hanekom adding to national coach Rassie Erasmus’ dilemma when it comes to the back row, where he is spoilt for choice, it will be further confirmation of the role the URC is playing as a breeding ground for Springboks.

Jordan Hendrikse and Edwill van der Merwe were selected on the basis of their performances for the Emirates Lions while Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu and Ben-Jason Dixon are there courtesy of their exploits for the DHL Stormers. The wider Bok group includes many others who have built their reputation in the URC.


But it’s not just the players who forward their names for consideration for national honours that are the point of achievements like the one the Bulls managed at the weekend. As important is what it means to the South African standing on the new stage they are playing on.

The Stormers won the URC in the inaugural season so the Bulls won’t be the first South African winners of the competition if they beat Glasgow, but what this past season did was see the two local front-runners cross the frontier that marks them as potential top dogs in Europe.

Leinster have played three Investec Champions Cup finals in succession. They are one of three teams currently considered to be at the top in Europe - the others are the current champions Toulouse and the recently dethroned champions, La Rochelle. Toulouse are yet to be conquered by a South African team, but neither Leinster nor La Rochelle can say the same.

The Stormers, who drew with Leinster in Dublin in league play in 2022/23, beat La Rochelle in a Champions Cup pool game in Cape Town this past season. They were within a conversion of beating them again in the round of 16 clash, a game where La Rochelle came with all guns blazing and threw everything at their opponents.

La Rochelle aren’t a shadow France team in the way Leinster are Ireland, and Toulouse have more French international players than they do, but La Rochelle are close to an international class team given the number of Galactico players from other countries they have on their books.

In the Super Rugby era, the South African sides would sometimes come up against teams that had a strong All Black or Wallaby look or influence. But those teams weren’t further strengthened by players outside of those countries like the teams you encounter in the Champions Cup and the URC are. And it is hard to recall a Crusaders or Blues side providing 18 players to an All Black squad.

The caveat to the point about the Bulls and Stormers crossing a frontier with their performances and wins over Leinster and La Rochelle is that the games were played at home. Their big defeat at the RDS Arena at the Easter Weekend suggests the Bulls would have faced a much stiffer challenge had they played Leinster away. Ditto the Stormers had they had to go to La Rochelle.


The point though is that three seasons ago when the South African franchises were being smashed by the touring British and Irish Lions (the Bulls were the one franchise that didn’t play the tourists), you wouldn’t have imagined them being competitive against the top teams in Europe.

Even last season when the Bulls and Sharks came short in Champions Cup playoff games against Toulouse, and the Stormers were outplayed by the Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park, the South African competitiveness with the top dogs of Europe still seemed some way off.

It seems a lot closer now, and while the EPCR Challenge Cup is a secondary competition, the Hollywoodbets Sharks team that earned promotion to the elite competition by winning that trophy has too many marquee players not to mount a challenge in time.

Not that an argument can be made to suggest playing in the URC has advanced the cause of the Sharks’ Boks, as most of them had already been there and done that as international players, and were World Cup winners, before the URC arrived. The Sharks didn’t shape in the URC this past season, which considering the quality on their team sheet, just further endorses the strength of the competition.

For the other two sides though, and for the fast improving Lions who at the end of the last World Cup cycle had no current Boks and now have two and could soon have more, there has been considerable growth in the three seasons of URC. It may appear the Stormers have gone backwards after winning the URC in the first year and now ending fifth, but the Cape side has considerably more depth to draw on now, and the same for the Bulls.

That growth and the experience of competing with and beating the best teams in Europe can only be good for the Boks - and add to the good headache Erasmus must have when he considers his selection options.