The United Rugby Championship South African teams update as they return from a week off presents fans with a slightly surprising leading light.
Ryan Jordan reflects on their log standings after nine rounds of play.
United Rugby Championship South African teams
The overall championship table is led by two Irish and two Scottish teams. Despite all the negativity around their financial situation, the Stormers lead the South African charge. For them or the Sharks to qualify for the playoffs, they will most likely have to win an away game in Europe. Winning their home games against visiting European teams would be non-negotiable. The Bulls have a slightly longer shot of qualifying for the playoffs. They would need to get back to winning ways. If they win all their home games and steal an away win in Europe, their match against the Stormers in Cape Town on 9 April could be season-defining. The Lions are even further back and have not shown that they are truly able to compete in a year that they have dedicated to rebuilding their squad using many of their age-group players.
United Rugby Championship South African team analysis
The Stormers currently lead the South African charge in the United Rugby Championship. This is despite all the off-field distractions relating to their financial and legal challenges. They are currently on an unbeaten streak. They beat the Bulls away, drew with the Sharks in Durban and then beat them at home in Cape Town. The Stormers do seem to be surprisingly settled considering what is happening around them and their earlier form.
Cell C Sharks
The Sharks are only a few points behind the Stormers. They will still be focused on this season’s campaign, but the Durban franchise are also planning further ahead. They have signed Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth, who wants to return to South Africa and has an early release from his current contract. Current Blitzboks coach, Neil Powell, will take the reigns as their Director of Rugby from October .
On-field, they would be disappointed with their draw and subsequent loss to the Stormers. This was very costly in terms of league position and is not indicative of their growth as a team. They cannot be discounted in terms of winning the South African Shield.
The Bulls won the local version of Super Rugby and two Currie Cup titles. They looked invincible. The big question is if they have progressed since then? They have been badly hit by the serious knee injury suffered by Johan Goosen. With Goosen directing the game, they looked like a team that could top the South African Shield and end up in the upper echelons of the competition. With Goosen out of the equation, the Bulls have started to stumble.
An old adage that has become a cliche is that championships are built around tighthead props. The Bulls are also struggling after the loss of Trevor Nyakane to Racing 92. Their current group of tighthead props has struggled in the United Rugby Championship. The Bulls scrum simply isn’t the weapon, defensive or offensive, that it used to be. Without a powerful scrum, any team will be hamstrung in terms of attacking their opponent’s scrum or defending their own ball.
The Lions are struggling with a fairly young squad at their disposal. Their lowly position in the United Rugby Championship standings attests to this. There have been comments from coaches Ivan van Rooyen and Jacques Fourie that have highlighted their frustration. Van Rooyen spoke of players needing to take responsibility on the field for their mistakes. Fourie’s frustration with the Lions leaky defense is obvious. He is on record as saying
“You can’t coach heart”
Unfortunately for the Lions faithful, their team is in a similar position to their team of 2013 when they were relegated from Super Rugby. The team that they invested in during that year repaid them with three consecutive Super Rugby finals. All the Lions can do now is be patient with their young squad. They are facing similar issues in the Currie Cup competition. They are struggling with a young team consisting of many of their former age group players.
Without a major cash injection to buy marquee players, the Lions must trust their systems to rebuild their team.
European Rugby Championship – the ultimate prize
It should also not be forgotten what is at play for the team that tops the South African Shield of the United Rugby Championship. Entry into the European Rugby Championship would be a massive boost for the qualifying team. Hosting Europe’s top clubs would certainly bring fans back into the stadiums. However, lifting themselves up yet another level would be an even bigger shock to the system than entry into the URC was.
United Rugby Championship South African teams – Salary cap concerns
The one issue that still hampers the South African teams is the self-imposed salary cap. This is currently set at R65million annually. To put this into perspective, Eben Etzebeth was on a R20million annual salary of his own at Toulon. At risk of starting a cheque-book war locally, the teams will need more freedom to secure marquee players to compete in the European competitions that they are entered into. They simply do not have the war-chests available that most of their European opponents do. The wide-open South African skies can only keep players at home to a certain point.
This weekend’s action United Rugby action for the South African teams:
Friday 25 February:
The Bulls take on Zebre at Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi in Parma, Italy.
The Lions face Leinster at the RDS Arena in Dublin, Ireland.
Saturday 26 February:
The Stormers are away to Connacht at the Sportsground in Galway, Ireland.
Finally, the Sharks take on Benetton at Stadio Comunale di Monigo in Treviso, Italy.
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