New URC Shield format brings extra edge to Loftus derby
Saturday's Vodacom United Rugby Championship derby between the Vodacom Bulls and Hollywoodbets Sharks isn't just a clash between the third and 14th placed teams overall, it is also the start of a separate competition.
That's because the inter-tribal rivalries that drive derby matches have been given more emphasis in this year’s URC by the new formatting for the Shield trophies that the teams representing the different nations competing in the competition play for.
Whereas in the past overall log position and points accumulated in all games played have counted to the Shield, that is no longer the case. It is now about just the points accumulated in the derby games between the teams in the Shield, with the games against overseas teams no longer contributing to the Shield.
So whereas a year ago the Vodacom Bulls, because they are third on the overall log table with 20 points to the Emirates Lions 14 and 10th overall, and the DHL Stormers one point and two positions further back, would have been comfortably on top of the SA Shield at this point, that is not the case now.
STORMERS LEAD AFTER JOBURG WIN
It is in fact the Stormers, winners of the Shield in the first two years of the URC, who are in what for them should now be a familiar position at the top of the local log. That is because there has only been one South African derby played this year, which was the opening fixture between the Stormers and the Lions in Johannesburg.
The Stormers won that game and scored four tries for the bonus point in the process, so they have five points after one game played, with the Lions next on two points in the four team competition after they picked up both a try scoring bonus and losing bonus point in the Emirates Airlines Park fixture. The Bulls and Sharks have yet to play a derby so for now they have no points towards the Shield.
The stand alone nature of the scoring system means that the Shield is now more of a separate competition within a competition than it used to be, with it theoretically now being possible for a Shield winner to end lower on the overall log than a team from the same nation but be considered local champions because of their results within the group.
COULD INCENTIVISE SHARKS
That could well further incentivise the Sharks ahead of Saturday’s game, as they are well outside of playoff qualification in the overall URC at present but are effectively starting a new separate competition with its own trophy on offer from scratch.
The different point scoring system also means the previous system whereby the Shield winner automatically qualifies for the Investec Champions Cup for the following season falls away, and with the top eight in the URC automatically advancing to the playoffs, as was the case in the first two seasons, the Shield competitions have become exclusively about local bragging rights.
The new system means that the Shield is now properly installing itself in the Currie Cups old role of determining the South African champion province, although of course in this case it is a local franchise competition.
Although they are lagging on the overall log, the Stormers are in a strong position to continue their Shield successes of the past two seasons as they have already picked up a full house of log points in an away derby, something that might be harder to do in this season where the South African teams appear stronger and more organised than they were before.
A telling part of the battle for Shield supremacy will be the festive season and early January, when some of the most potentially decisive Shield games will be played. Four wins should be enough to clinch the Shield, so if the Stormers add to their win in Johannesburg by beating the Bulls and Sharks in their successive home derbies over the festive week (23 and 30 December respectively) they will be on the cusp of their hattrick of Shield successes with three wins and a home derby against the Lions to come in addition to their trips to Durban and Pretoria.
Not that it makes the derbies any less important from an overall competition perspective. Bulls director of rugby Jake White has already spoken about how important the derby games are in the quest to do well in the URC, and he has clearly learned from the lessons of the past, where points lost in derby games cost his team. Last year the Bulls would have made the top four, and not have had to travel to Cape Town for their quarterfinal, had they not lost home derbies to the Stormers and Lions.
The Stormers by contrast owed their home run in the playoffs a lot to their unbeaten run in derby matches that contributed so much to their eventual third place finish in a season where their record outside of South Africa was poor.
The Stormers won six out of six derby games last season and haven’t lost to another South African team since they went down to the Lions in their first ever URC derby in 2021.