SA URC REVIEW: There's a silver lining to the struggle overseas
Aah, the green, green fields, and the dry or humid air of home! You could almost sense the South African players feeling a keen anticipation as they took the field to effect a dramatic but entirely expected change of form in round six of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
Of course, there was another factor aside from just being back home at play in two of the three games that local sides won comfortably this past weekend. Blame the Springboks for winning the Rugby World Cup if you like, but the South African international players returned to franchise duty much later than the players in Ireland (quarterfinal RWC exit), Wales (quarterfinal exit), Italy and Scotland (group stage).
And what a difference it makes, certainly to the Hollywoodbets Sharks, but to the Vodacom Bulls too, with Willie le Roux showing against Connacht that when Jake White signed him to his team he also was bringing a different angle to the Bulls’ game.
The DHL Stormers, champions in this competition in the first year and beaten finalists last season, were the one SA team to lose at the weekend. It was no coincidence perhaps that they were also the only team that didn’t reintroduce their Boks (you can’t really when you are on tour) and they were also the only local team playing away from home.
Given what we saw transpire on South African fields with the Boks back in round six, John Dobson can anticipate his team filling their boots when they have the likes of Damian Willemse, Manie Libbok, Deon Fourie and Frans Malherbe available for the clash with Zebre in Stellenbosch next up, plus the anticipated return from minor injuries of Evan Roos, Ben-Jason Dixon, Leolin Zas and others who missed their four match tour, such as Hacjivah Dayimani.
STORMERS WERE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMIES
The Stormers will probably be the first to agree they were their own worst enemies for much of their tour and they were again when they brought the curtain down on this section of the season for South African teams by completely butchering what should have been a comfortable win over Cardiff.
Yes, the injuries that became apparent in the buildup week didn’t help, and the Stormers ended up with a very inexperienced team at Cardiff Arms Park. But they went into a 14-0 lead after just 12 minutes when they followed the pre-planned script. They blew it when, inexplicably, they abandoned the script and fell back into their disturbing habit of overplaying everything and thinking they could be the Harlem Globetrotters.
Back home in Stellenbosch in their last game before the tour, against Scarlets, they could get away with it. Against Cardiff and their good defensive system it just translated into so much lost ball in contact and that in turn translated into a long succession of Cardiff scrum put-ins. In other words, the Stormers just couldn’t hold onto the ball and attain or retain any kind of momentum.
The focus on what the Stormers did wrong in their last game is because we need to get that out of the way - their tour could have turned out much better. They should have beaten Benetton, where they also conspired against themselves, and weren’t far away from at least drawing with Munster too.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH BUT CONTEXT IS NECESSARY
But the long and the short of it is that the Stormers returned to South Africa having lost all four of their tour games, just like their coastal neighbours, the Sharks did. The Emirates Lions won once in four starts and the Bulls twice. That gives you a sum total of three wins in 16 games. That’s just not good enough.
Yet there’s context that needs to be taken into account, such as the fact that the three of the four teams were without key players on tour who were busy winning the World Cup for the Boks (the Lions don’t have any World Cup winning Boks). Going on tour under-strength, particularly such a long tour, was always going to put the local teams on the back foot.
And Bulls coach White is also right to voice concerns about the disadvantage the South African teams are at when they go on a tour that includes as many as four games. We used to moan about tours of that length in the Super Rugby era and, as White correctly says, one of the reasons South Africa signed up to the URC was to avoid such tours and the implicit disadvantage.
It may not be a coincidence that all four South African teams failed to win their last tour games. In the years of Super Rugby the term “a bridge too far” became a bit of a cliche in reference to the fourth game on tour.
And yet there is a silver lining out of all of this, a reason to feel that while there is short-term pain for South Africa as a whole, these early season under-strength tours could turn out to be of massive benefit to the learning curves of both teams and individual players in the long run. The term under-strength by implication also means that players who wouldn’t normally be exposed to the overseas conditions and the foreign opposition rugby culture as members of the starting team are doing so.
And it is likely to continue to be the case too, for going on tour early wasn’t a one-off for South African sides dictated by the World Cup. They did so both last year and the year before, when the Boks were on tour. It appears likely the local sides will continue to tour in the November international window, when in future the opposition sides will of course also be without their international players.
INDIVIDUAL PLAYERS GAINED A LOT
The South African sides have struggled on the early season tours over the first three seasons because it is still new to them. It is logical though that it will start changing as the players gain experience of touring, just as in time perhaps teams like Connacht and Zebre might be less cowed by the prospect of a trip to altitude than currently appears the case.
Although 13 losses in 16 starts makes horrible reading from a South African perspective, there were also several individual players who made full use of the exposure to playing top opponents overseas. Sanele Nohamba, the Lions flyhalf retreaded from scrumhalf was one, and there were several others from that young side, and while he made mistakes which will be part of his learning, the precociously talented Stormers player Sacha Feinberg-Mngomezulu was another.
You could also list several Bulls players who, like Feinberg-Mngomezulu, might not have got the exposure if the team went overseas at full strength. Sharks coach John Plumtree would also quite rightly argue that while his team suffered overseas, it was an opportunity for him to assess his strength in depth and get to know some of the lesser known Sharks players.
So while it is true that the past six weeks have been a wake-up call to the local franchises, who know now that winning consistently overseas is a frontier they still have to cross, they’ve also all widened the pool of players in their ranks who now have experience of the 4G pitches that remain problematic, the wind and rain in a place like Limerick, the different playing styles encountered across the different URC nations, not to mention the way northern hemisphere referees blow the games in that part of the world.
In the Super Rugby era young players and fringe players only got exposed to overseas conditions and opposition when there were injuries. Now it happens as a matter of course on tour, and that’s not a bad thing for this country’s rugby.
Round 6 Vodacom United Rugby Championship results:
Edinburgh 22 Benetton 24
Cardiff 31 DHL Stormers 24
Emirates Lions 61 Zebre 19
Vodacom Bulls 53 Connacht 27
Hollywoodbets Sharks 69 Dragons 14
Leinster 21 Munster 16
Glasgow Warriors 33 Ulster 20
Ospreys 31 Scarlets 9