The United Rugby Championship kicks off on Friday 24 September. This season of the former PRO14 competition is a significant one, with the entry of the big four of South African Rugby.
South African rugby starts migration to the North
North Hemisphere versus Southern Hemisphere: The hard border
The move to Northern Hemisphere competition might look like an uncomfortable fit at first. The old North versus South conversation is the first concept that fans would need to get their minds around. For years it has been ingrained in rugby tradition that each hemisphere looked after its own. South Africa moved their professional rugby unions (clubs) northwards after a rather acrimonious divorce from the Super Rugby competition. This flips on its head the traditional bloc mentality in the game of rugby.
This could have further ramifications when it comes to voting time.
The advantages for South African rugby
There are many advantages for SA Rugby. Earnings from TV rights in European currency cannot be overlooked. Games will be played at similar times to what the South African viewing public is used to. This is convenient for the viewing public. It is even more convenient for sponsors and advertisers.
In the past, the Friday night games in New Zealand and Australia were shown live in South Africa on Friday morning. At the beginning of a workday! So having matches in similar time zones will be a key advantage for the South African conference franchise teams.
Yet for some, Equity partners may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For the South African teams, trying to compete without a strong equity partner would be nigh on impossible. Hence the shift permanently northward, away from the Super competition in 2021/22.
What can be expected in United Rugby Championship year one
A tough first year
South African fans should not be under any illusions in the first year of the United Rugby Championship. It is a new competition for all the teams. New venues with new conditions. New opponents present new challenges. The away games will be most challenging due to the unfamiliar conditions. Home encounters should present the visiting teams from Europe with similar challenges.
Two of the South African teams have planned well for their learning year in the competition. The other two have a long way to go. The two teams that have prepared early are the Vodacom Bulls and the Cell C Sharks. The Emirates Lions and DHL Stormers started their preparations very late.
Everyone will have their own opinion on how their team will do in the United Rugby Championship. A rational look at how each team has prepared for the competition reveals a lot about how they may perform. The Bulls and the Sharks are very close as the top two South African teams. The Bulls are possibly slightly ahead of the Sharks.
The Lions and Stormers are likely to be the two teams at the bottom of the South African group. It is debatable which team may be the better ones in the competition. As expected, they are delving into playing stocks of the Griquas, Pumas and Cheetahs. There is talent there, but no world-class players.
The Bulls have been building their squad for a while now. The addition of players such as Marcel Coetzee, Johan Goosen, Morne Steyn, Bismark du Plessis, Lionel Mapoe and Harold Vorster has certainly helped them with squad depth. There has been negative comment regarding the age of some of the players contracted. Fans should not lose sight of the fact that these players have a vital role to play in mentoring the next generation of players. This becomes important when we consider that that inexperienced, young players will need guidance during the United Rugby Championship.
A major loss was Duane Vermeulen signing for Ulster. He added steel to the pack, but his leadership has been a highlight.
In terms of equity partners, the Bulls were early adaptors. The Bulls hold 26% of the company, Johan Rupert’s Remgro investment company 37% mining mogul Patrice Motsepe holds the remaining 37% share.
A final point to note is that the Bulls have the most experienced coach of the four teams. Jake White’s coaching CV doesn’t need much embellishment. A Rugby World Cup medal and coaching success around the world. His experience will be essential in the tournament.
Here is the Vodacom Bulls touring squad to take on the Vodacom United Rugby Championship 🏆
— Official Blue Bulls (@BlueBullsRugby) September 17, 2021
Cell C Sharks
The Sharks have also gone the equity route to set themselves up for playing and business success in international competition. MVM Holdings have a controlling share of 51% in the business. The balance is held by the Sharks. There is also a working partnership with marketing and sports management specialists, Roc Nation.
Playing stocks have been boosted with the arrival Siya Kolisi and the imminent arrival of Bongi Mbonambi, both from the Stormers. They have bolstered their locks with the arrival of the experienced Gerbrandt Grobler.
Ruan Pienaar has been loaned from the Cheetahs to cover scrum-half due to the injury to Jayden Hendrikse and subsequent call-up of Grant Williams to the Springbok squad.
The Cell C Sharks depart for the first month’s Vodacom United Rugby Championship action with a 34 man squad to play in four successive matches in Ireland, Scotland and Wales beginning next Saturday🦈
— The Sharks (@SharksRugby) September 17, 2021
The Lions come off a very disappointing Currie Cup campaign. They finished the round-robin part of the tournament in 7th and last place. Their headline signing is Edwill van der Merwe from the Stormers. They have added some depth with the signing of Christopher Hollis (centre), Ginter Smuts (scrum-half), Morgan Naude (prop). Eddie Fouche (flyhalf), Matt More (centre) and Pieter Jansen van Vuren (lock).
The Lions do already have an equity partner in Altmann Allers. He owns 74.9% of the union through his company Foxbell Investments. The Golden Lions Rugby Union has the other 25.1%. Recent results have been disappointing and it would be interesting to see if those in the boardroom have more planned other than the recent cleanout of Ivan van Rooyen’s assistant coaches.
— Emirates Lions (@LionsRugbyCo) September 14, 2021
The Stormers, under the management of the Western Province Rugby Union, have had their name in the press for the wrong reasons for far too long. The Union seems to be incapable of completing a Board meeting without it ending in chaos and name-calling. There is no point in detailing the fine detail of their financial risk here other than stating that if the current litigation with Flyt Property Development does not go their way, the Union will fold and SA Rugby could be facing an expensive intervention. They were also the first investment choice for MVM Holdings. MVM walked away and struck a deal with the Sharks within days.
The in-fighting rages on and there seems to be scant regard for how long their title sponsor DHL will accept to have their brand name associated with so much negativity. Although at a smaller scale, South African has a precedent of a title sponsor walking away from a negative situation. The Kings lost their title sponsor after charges of maladministration were made.
In squad news, they have lost players of the quality of Edwill van der Merwe, Pieter-Steph du Toit, JD Schickerling, Bongi Mbonambi, Siya Kolisi and Juano Augustus. Incoming players are loose forwards Willie Engelbrecht and Junior Pokomela and scrum-half Stefan Ungerer. It is important to note that these players are on loan and not contract. Two new players contracted are fly-half Manie Libbok who was not getting game time at the Sharks and Griquas lock Adre Smith. Prop Brok Harris also re-joins the Stormers after not being offered a new contract at the Dragons.
⛈️🧑✈️Salmaan Moerat and Ernst van Rhyn appointed DHL Stormers co-captains for European Vodacom #URC tour.
📢33-man squad announced for Euro trip
— DHL Stormers (@THESTORMERS) September 16, 2021
A journey into the unknown
None of the South African teams joining have any experience in playing in a Northern Hemisphere competition. They are also unlikely to welcome back any of their Springbok players in the near future. Most of them have been in a bio-bubble since the beginning of June and will probably remain confined to quarters until after the End of Year Tour to Europe. They will need rest and family time before there is any thought of them appearing in the United Rugby Championship.
To hope for a tournament winner from the South African teams is probably over-optimistic in the first season. The exposure will certainly set a platform for the future though.
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