Gerry Thornley: Weary South African franchises endure baptism of fire

Despite the early setbacks their involvement should benefit the URC

So far then, perhaps not so good. The arrival of the four South African franchises into the United Rugby Championship has proved a more humbling exercise for them than their hosts. Suffice to say that any fears they would dominate the competition from the off have proved a tad misplaced.

Since the Lions marked the South Africans' arrival with an opening night, 38-16 win over Zebre in Parma, they have lost seven matches in succession. The promise of the Bulls' performance in the Aviva Stadium, when extending Leinster to a far more competitive win than the 31-3 scoreline indicated, hasn't quite been involved.

When it was confirmed the South Africans would be coming aboard the Pro14 last September, Gordon D'Arcy bucked the largely positive reaction which greeted this announcement with a well-argued article in these pages.

He wouldn’t have been alone in reasoning that “at least two South African franchises will come close to instantly winning a remodelled Pro16”. Granted, the opening two weekends could well prove misleading, especially in the long-term, but the immediacy of this fear looks like proving unfounded.


Last weekend, all four South African sides not only lost but each conceded over 30 points and attacking bonus points to Connacht, Scarlets, Warriors and Munster.

The Lions are the best placed South African side in 11th place, followed by the Stormers in 13th, with the Sharks (15th) and Bulls (16th) propping up the table as the only teams yet to register a solitary point.

For sure there are a myriad of factors at work here. Whether it’s a comparative lack of fitness or freshness, they have all looked a little weary, and a common theme is how they have fallen away in the second half of their games.

Even the Lions led 38-0 before conceding 26 unanswered points in the last 35 minutes in Parma. In the Sportsground last Friday the Bulls took an early 7-0 lead before eventually conceding an unanswered 24 points to a brilliant and vibrant Connacht. The Stormers ought to have led by more than 15-0 approaching half-time in Thomond Park, but thereafter lost 34-3.

Between the Rainbow Cup and the Currie Cup, the South African sides have been pretty much on the go since mid-April. Last weekend marked the Bulls 23rd game since the start of the Rainbow Cup.

D’Arcy also questioned the logistical difficulties of the South African sides effectively playing in two different hemispheres in two different seasons, and in this he looks to have a very valid point. That said, it is the South African sides who are suffering more, and the scheduling and the ramifications of the Covid pandemic have conspired against them.

Entertainment value

To begin with, they were pitted with a month-long four-game tour of Europe. Then, after their bye week, due to the scale of the pandemic in South Africa, their projected home games in rounds seven and eight at the end of November and early December will be moved to Europe.

That this might undermine the integrity of the competition should those teams scheduled to play them in 2022 have to travel to South Africa is a relative incidental in the greater scheme of things.

Nevertheless, even in losing causes, the Bulls and Stormers especially, have added to the entertainment value and sense of occasion in their games to date. It’s also been an eye-opener for them.

Jake White, the Bulls' director of rugby, freely admitted after his side's defeat by Leinster that it was a step up from the Currie Cup, not least in the reduced time and space which the skillset of the Leinster players afforded his team.

In a sense that is good to hear. It would be worse if the Bulls beat Leinster at the Aviva first game up. White added that the URC, and particularly this opening month, would be a learning curve for his team.

Interestingly, in his estimation, compared to the Bulls salary cap of 65 million Rand per year, which equates to €3.7 million, Leinster’s wage bill is 185 million Rand, or €10.5 million.

One of the reasons why the South African franchises defected to Europe, as it were, is that they were handicapped by, and weary of, the travelling and different time zones, so if that’s the case, then White was not for complaining.

White has sought to educate the South African rugby media with the simple truth that Leinster have, as he puts it, got it right. They have an academy and a coaching structure that works. Talking to Stuart Lancaster, he was amazed to discover that the former English head coach is in his sixth season with the province.

In addition to this, Leo Cullen is in his seventh, Felipe Contepomi in his fourth, Robin McBryde in his third and Emmet Farrell his fifth. White envied such stability and such a proven pathway as much as Leinster's superior resources. He aspires to have their home-grown players come through their system to play for the Springboks and remain with the Bulls for a long time.

Brutal league

In the shorter-term, the four South African sides will be significantly buttressed by the return of their Springboks at some point after their November Tests – although they’ll need a break – as well as having games in their own country and, hopefully, having home fans in attendance one day. They’ll start climbing the table then.

D'Arcy questioned whether the Irish teams would cope with present and future waves of giant Springboks, and reckoned that Munster and Ulster, without their internationals, might struggle to cope.

While justifiably raising South African rugby's relationship with performance enhancing drugs, D'Arcy feared the URC would become the most brutal league on the planet. While even allegations of biting are decidedly unsavoury, in these pages last Saturday the Leinster and Ireland tighthead Tadhg Furlong ventured that the upping in physicality would be beneficial for Irish sides.

Their results have not been good. We have yet to see anything like the full impact which the South African sides might provide, and they might not provide it for some time yet. So the jury is still out. But there’s enough evidence to have us believe they’ll be good for the competition and rugby in this part of the world, Ireland included.