The DHL Stormers are second, but you have to head down to seventh before you find the next South African team on the Vodacom United Rugby Championship log.
The Vodacom Bulls, like the Cell C Sharks, are fighting just to be in the placings that qualify for the play-offs.
The Irish situation by contrast is quite different. Connacht’s good win over Edinburgh in Galway at the weekend places them sixth. They’re the lowest ranked Irish province in the URC, and yet the only South African team ahead of them is the Stormers.
That certainly is a far cry from this time last year. Heading towards the end of the league stage of the 2021/2022 season, the top three South African teams were all placed in the top five. And that is how they finished. The headlines back then were about local domination in the first year that this country’s top franchises participated in what was previously the PRO14 (the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings had participated before that).
But while Ireland are riding a strong wave of momentum now, with their provinces carrying on where the national team left off in achieving a notable Grand Slam and winning the Six Nations, to suggest the URC is a reflection of the talent depth available to the coaches of South Africa and Ireland would be wrong.
NOT COMPARING APPLES WITH APPLES
Those who lamented the fact that a full strength Stormers had to battle to draw with a Leinster team that was without it’s Six Nations players and then reflected that it was an indication of where the two nations stand heading towards the Rugby World Cup in France are not comparing apples with apples.
For a start, the Irish coach has the players representing the four Irish provinces to choose from when he selects his team. That’s it. That’s the entire selection pool. For Bok coach Jacques Nienaber that is not the case. There are 300 South Africans playing professional rugby overseas.
Make no mistake, those who question the policy of having no limit on the number of overseas players eligible for the Boks, as well as no qualification requirements such as number of international caps or years playing local provincial or franchise rugby, do have a point.
The local rugby system cannot just survive on the Springbok successes. The local franchises need to be strong and competitive and they need to be playing high quality rugby if the crowds and eyes needed to sustain the business are to be attracted to the product. Otherwise all the big fancy stadiums only get filled or even half filled with the Springboks are in town, which may be once a year if that provincial union is lucky enough to be awarded test matches on a regular basis.
Bulls coach Jake White has argued with some justification that some limits do need to be put on foreign based qualification for the national team if the flow of talent to overseas clubs, and thus the challenges to the continuity at franchise level, is to be stemmed. Imagine how strong the Bulls might be if they still had RG Snyman, Lood de Jager and Trevor Nyakane, all now foreign based, still playing for them.
STORMERS SUSTAINED BIG LOSSES AND TRIUMPHED
In a country like South Africa, which is such a fertile breeding ground for talent, the franchises generally do have a strong enough pipeline to fill in the losses reasonably quickly. Look at the Stormers. In the last four years they’ve lost Bongi Mbonambi, Eben Etzebeth, Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit and Damian de Allende, to name just a few. All of them World Cup winners.
And yet the Stormers have suffered the loss of those players and still thrived. In fact, they’re a much better team now than they were when those players still played for them, thanks to the extraordinary culture built up by coach John Dobson. They are reigning URC champions.
Leinster, who like the Transvaal team of 1995 are almost the national team in everything but name, might just about be able to get away with losing that number of marquee players and still be competitive. But that is because the Irish centralised contracting system has conspired to concentrate most of the Irish depth in the team that plays out of the capital city and economic hub of that city.
They wouldn’t though be the perennial winners they are now, and it is debatable that any of the other Irish provinces would survive if their top players were lured away by foreign currency to the extent that it happens to the South African teams.
WHITE IS RIGHT TO ENVY LANCASTER
The Irish provincial coaches are able to speak about long term planning because their players don’t leave. Leinster assistant coach Stuart Lancaster, who joined the setup soon after being axed as England coach back in 2015, spoke the other day about how he’d been involved in Garry Ringrose’s development since he was 20 years old. He’s now 28.
As White noted, that’d be a rare thing for a local coach to be able to claim. There’s just too much turnover of players here. As Dobson once noted, participating in the URC puts his players in the shop window for overseas clubs and franchises/provinces. One of his star players from last year, Warrick Gelant, is playing in France because the offer he received was just too lucrative. That doesn’t happen to the Irish teams. At least not with the frequency it happens to South African teams.
Those who have coached in Ireland, such as Gert Smal (he was Ireland assistant coach) and Rassie Erasmus, will tell you that there’s a bigger focus on developing specific individuals in Ireland. Because there needs to be. They don’t have the flow of talent coming through the system that South Africa does courtesy of the Currie Cup, which has now become a feeder competition, and the Varsity Cup.
CURRIE CUP NOW A SHOP WINDOW
The Currie Cup has very much become a shop window for the franchise coaches. Whether having so many professional players makes the South African system a financially sustainable one we will find out in time, but for now we have a system that offers the rich raw talent coming out of the schooling system a stepping stone to the bigger leagues.
It is why South Africa can afford to lose 300 professional players to overseas clubs and still be competitive enough in the URC to claim one team as the reigning champions and another as last year’s beaten finalist. With the remaining URC league games all being played on South African soil, we could yet still have three SA teams in the top six.
And with the Emirates Lions making a late charge, this country could yet have four teams in the final URC top eight. That’s not at all bad if you put all of the above into perspective. The Irish wouldn’t come close to managing that if they had 300 players playing off-shore.
And if Jake White was listened to, and a way was found to keep the bulk of the top Boks in the country, South Africa might well end up boasting a serial winner like Leinster or Crusaders at franchise/club level too.