URC WRAP: It is an Irish shut-out, but the other way around

rugby17 June 2024 05:36
By:Gavin Rich
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Dan Sheehan © Gallo Images

We were talking about the potential of an Irish shut-out in the deciding week of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship season and ultimately that has come about, but in a different way to what was expected.

Given Leinster’s squad depth and their determination to pick up a trophy at the end of a three season drought, and Munster’s determination to hold onto the trophy they took off the DHL Stormers last year, the talk of a shut-out revolved around the prospect of the Irish teams shutting the rest out and turning the final into an Ireland derby.

But, as was fitting for a competition that just keeps on giving when it comes to competitiveness, instead of the predicted scenario of Ireland shutting out the other nations, it is Ireland that has been shut out of the race for a trophy that they, and in particular Leinster, dominated when this competition was the PRO14 and before that the PRO12.

One of the reasons the URC organisers went for South African participation in what has now become a five nation, cross-hemisphere competition was that they needed some erosion of the Irish hegemony.

A competition dominated by one nation or one team can lead to it becoming a bit staid and you just have to tap into the complaints of many Formula 1 fans at the current domination by Red Bull and before that Mercedes as an example. “Another day, another win for Max Verstappen,” will appeal to the Dutch driver’s supporters, but not many neutrals. Ditto Manchester City’s growing domination of the Premier League, but at least there have been some close battles in that competition, with the title being decided on the last day of the season twice in the last four editions.


There’s certainly no-one dominating the URC after three seasons of the current format, and if there was domination, it isn’t coming from the Irish. With the Vodacom Bulls hosting the Glasgow Warriors at Loftus on Saturday in this season’s final, it will be the second year in three that there hasn’t been an Irish finalist.

Indeed, it will be the third year in succession that South Africa will host the final, with the deciding game yet to be played outside this country after two seasons where the Stormers had home ground advantage and now the Bulls.

There has been one Irish team that has won the competition. Munster managed that when they shocked the Stormers away last year. But Munster have also been the only Irish team to appear in a final since it became the URC. South Africa have made up four of the six appearances in a final - the Stormers twice and now the Bulls twice. Scotland have one and Ireland one.

From a South African viewpoint it is certainly a far cry from the Super Rugby years, where invariably we watched from afar as usually New Zealand teams faced off or there was a Trans-Tasman face off. The Sharks were the beaten finalists in the first year, 1996, and again in 2001, but otherwise this country had to wait until 2007, when the Sharks and Bulls met in an all South African final in Durban, for the first success in that competition.


It was a long weekend, but the crowd that turned up at Loftus was a bit disappointing given the cracking game that the first semifinal was. Given that it is only in the north/south derby that Loftus appears to be full these days outside of a final (we will see if that transpires on Saturday), maybe the Bulls should have some appreciation for the hard time their arch-rivals from the Cape have given them over the past three seasons.

It was a semifinal that had everything, including some decidedly ropy refereeing and match officiating. Former Springbok prop Robbi Kempson, in his role as Supersport in studio analyst, sung Sam Grove-White’s praises before the game, but the Scotsman appeared to lose it on the big occasion.

He let Leinster get away with so much at the breakdowns, in tandem with TMO Ben Whitehouse gave the visitors so much leeway when it came to high and late shots, and was so unwilling to reward the Bulls’ scrum dominance for most of the game, that there were times the mind went back to Wellington 2011. In other words, to the Bryce Lawrence freak show that cost the Springboks in the World Cup quarterfinal against Australia.

In the end the team that deserved to win on the day did win. So the criticism of Grove-White will be muted and instead the talk is rightly about the massive impact of Wilco Louw at scrum time, the indefatigable work rate and influence of Cameron Hanekom, the unlikely hero that was Sergeal Petersen, not to mention the Bulls’ defensive effort.

The latter was writ large in that period eight minutes from time when Leinster, trailing by five points, threw everything into their attempt to wrest control of the game from the Bulls and put together a long sustained attack that amounted to at least 21 phases before the Bulls turned them over.

The Bulls’ defence had been passive against Benetton the week before, but in this game, and particularly in that moment, they stepped up. The defence in that period of unrelenting Leinster pressure won the game for the Bulls in the same way that a similar spot of Bok resistance shortly before halftime won them the 2019 World Cup final against England in Yokohama.


Indeed, this was a weekend where defence was the defining characteristic when it came to the winners of both finals. Munster were dominant in the first half against Glasgow at Thomond Park and for a long time it looked like the predictions of a fairly comfortable Munster win would be proved correct.

But as the game wore on two things were becoming evident - first off, Munster coach Graham Rowntree’s concerns about the slowness of his team’s ball recycling were proving to be well founded, and secondly Glasgow weren’t giving in and their defence was up for it. When they scored an intercept try to take the lead, it was game on, and there was to be no denying Glasgow after that, despite the best intentions of a Munster team that had plenty of opportunities.

Rory Darge and company were as magnificent as Hanekom, Marco van Staden and company were for the Bulls in ensuring that life was difficult for Munster at the breakdowns. It didn’t produce as many tries as the one in Pretoria, but the game in Limerick, between two teams that don’t like each other a lot, was as much of a battle, and as bruising as the one at Loftus.


Glasgow’s coach Franco Smith was quick afterwards to acknowledge that recovery from the bruising battle is going to have to be a top priority this week. His team also has to fly, something the Bulls don’t have to do. But he also said there was unfinished business for this team on the highveld.

When Glasgow came here in May they effectively blew their chance of finishing top of the log. Before that they had been the form team in the competition. They lost to the Bulls and a week later were blown away by the Emirates Lions. They are a better team than those results showed and they will come to Pretoria with a definite chance of winning.

To get to this final they beat the two previous winners of the URC, the Stormers at home and Munster away. That shows they are no Mickey Mouse team. This time though, unlike against Leinster, the Bulls’ home ground advantage will make them clear favourites. They’ve never lost a playoff game in an international competition at Loftus.

Bulls coach Jake White will be wary though - he will remind his team that the Stormers were clear favourites last year against Munster. Memories of Glasgow’s points scoring spree late in their league game might also be fresh in his mind. Make no mistake, Glasgow are dangerous opponents. It should be a great final, and the winner may well be determined by which of the two teams will go in feeling they’ve played their final already.


Vodacom Bulls 25 Leinster 20

Munster 10 Glasgow Warriors 17


Vodacom Bulls v Glasgow Warriors (Loftus Stadium, Pretoria - Saturday 6pm)