Competitiveness of this URC is writ large in the stats
It may be too early in the new season to get excited but after five rounds the Vodacom United Rugby Championship stats point towards this third edition of the competition being the most competitive yet.
Given the greater jeopardy being experienced by the contending teams, even the Hollywoodbets Sharks, languishing in last place with just two log points, can consider themselves to still be in the fight. Which were in fact exactly the words that Emirates Lions assistant coach Ricardo Loubscher used when he was asked to sum up his team’s season so far: “We are still in the fight”. And he’s right. Whereas in past campaign’s the Lions were outplayed in some games, this time around it is possible to say that with just a bit of luck, the Johannesburg team could be in the top two rather than in their current 13th.
The Lions have managed a losing bonus point in each of the four games they’s gone down in, with their one victory also being an exciting, close game against Scarlets in Llanelli. Close games have been very much the order of the day thus far in the URC season, with 50 per cent of the 40 games play producing losing bonus points.
SIX POINTS SEPARATE TOP EIGHT
On top of that, there are just six points separating the top team from the team in eighth, meaning the bottom of the play-off bracket, Benetton. And Benetton have lost just once, with the two points they lost when they conceded a last gasp try to champions Munster to be held to a draw effectively being the difference between eighth and a place in the top four.
Benetton have proved particularly hard to beat this year and their form coupled with that of their derby opponents, Zebre, gives legs to the perception that despite Italy’s poor performances against New Zealand and France in the Rugby World Cup, rugby in that country is on the up as they fight to remain part of the Six Nations.
The rise of Italy was telegraphed by the performance of the Italy under-21 team at last year’s Junior World Championship in South Africa, and it has been carried on by Benetton, who have taken points off both of last year’s participants in the Cape Town final - they drew with Munster and beat the DHL Stormers.
And Zebre, after inhabiting the bottom position from the start of the season to the end in both of the two previous terms of the URC, are lying 11th. More specifically, if you want to assess their improvement, they have 11 points from their five games, which already equals their 2022/23 total number of points.
In their last two games they beat the Sharks and drew with Cardiff which prompted their former teammate Richard Kriel, now with the Lions, to predict that they could cause problems for the teams they face in South Africa on a short tour that starts with Saturday’s clash with Kriel’s team at Emirates Airlines Park.
NOT SO MANY EASY GAMES THIS YEAR
It was Edinburgh’s former Sharks coach Sean Everitt who said that the first five games of the competition have shown that there are no easy games, and so far that has generally proved to be the case - although it is also obvious that some of the teams further down the log are much better and more difficult to play against at home than they are on the road.
Another thing that has changed from last year is that there is no runaway leader as yet. Leinster stamped their authority early on en route to top of the log finishes in both 2021/22 and 2022/23 but this time around they lost their opening game. Although they have recovered enough to be joint top with Glasgow Warriors, and of course it is still early days with one third of the league phase of the season not yet completed, this doesn’t look like being a season where the Dublin team will be able to rest players and select changed up teams in the last third as they have in the first two seasons.
At this point their strongest challenge looks likely to come from Glasgow or one of the other Irish teams, but it is still way too early to write off the South African challenge as the local teams have all been on four match overseas tours where they have been at a big disadvantage. The Springboks are back from their World Cup celebrations imminently and aside from that the likes of the Stormers and Vodacom Bulls do boast much better records in South Africa than they do outside the country. The Stormers for instance topped the try-scoring list after round two but subsequent to that have played two games where they were unable to cross the opposition line.
The Bulls have only played once at home and that was a nine try rout of Scarlets in round one. Their fullback Devon Williams said in a media conference this week that his team will be looking to use the altitude and the heat to their advantage by stretching their opponents with a high tempo game, starting with high flying Connacht on Saturday.
Given how open games tend to be in South Africa in the summer months when it is dry, some fast paced and high quality games can be anticipated as the teams go into their derby phase as well as their first European engagements (Champions Cup and Challenge Cup) of the season in December.
SHARKS INDIVIDUAL STATS DENOTE CHANGE OF DIRECTION
It is interesting to note at this juncture, with five rounds completed, that the top individual performers aren’t limited to the top teams, which is another indication of the greater competitiveness, and the higher level of jeopardy there is for the main contenders, in 2023/24.
For instance the bottom team from Durban have shown that the turning of the corner might well be as imminent as their coach John Plumtree says it is by supplying the player with the most metres run, Aphelele Fassi with 427, the most passes (Cameron Wright with 292), and their young lock Emile van Heerden has won the most lineouts. The first two stats may be an indication of the more possession and multi-phase direction that the Sharks are taking under their new coach.
When it comes to overall team totals though a familiar pattern does appear to be emerging in the sense that Leinster are top when it comes to overall metres gained (2382), points and tries (26). With 50 they also have the most visits into the opposing 22. Glasgow and Connacht’s early season success is underlined by Connacht being top in carries (659) and Glasgow top in defenders beaten (119).
OVERALL TOP PLAYERS AFTER ROUND 5
Carries: 78 Gavin Coombes (Munster)Defenders beaten: 18 Blair Kinghorn (Edinburgh) Kicks in Play: 53 Reuben Morgan-Williams (Ospreys) Lineout Steals: 3 Multiple Players Lineouts won: Emile van Heerden (Hollywoodbets Sharks) Metres run: 427 Aphelele Fassi (Hollywoodbets Sharks) Passes: 292 Cameron Wright (Hollywoodbets Sharks) Tackles: 77 David McCann (Ulster) Tries: 5 Johny Matthews (Glasgow Warriors)/ Jacob Stockdale (Ulster) Turnovers Won: 8 Evan Roos (DHL Stormers)
OVERALL TOP TEAM TOTALSCarries: 659 Connacht Defenders beaten: 119 Glasgow Warriors Kicks in Play: 152 Benetton Metres: 2582 Leinster Points: 182 Leinster Tackles: 800 Leinster Tries: 26 Leinster Turnovers won: 44 Benetton Visits to 22: 50 Leinster