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'I really think this will be good for the URC in the coming years'

The much-maligned competition has come alive in the last couple of months thanks to an injection of quality from four South African franchises.

Sharks' Bongi Mbonambi lights up the URC
Sharks' Bongi Mbonambi lights up the URC
Image: Steve Haag/INPHO

IT WASN’T JUST Munster who were the big winners over the weekend, for once it felt like the URC came out on top, too.

As a competition, it has undergone so many reinventions over the years, starting life as the Celtic League, reappearing as the Pro12/14, then as the URC, that it has left itself open to mockery.

Even now, in what has the potential to be its best ever season, its structure remains deeply flawed, throwing 16 teams together but forcing some, specifically Connacht, to play a disproportionate number of games against teams in the top five while they watch rivals for a play-off spot enjoy the easy pickings of double dates against Zebre and Benetton.

Timing can be everything. Munster faced a fully-loaded Leinster a few weeks back whereas the Sharks hosted Leinster-lite last weekend; Munster lost; Sharks won against Leo Cullen’s team. Come the end of the season, when the quarter-final draw is made, that could end up being hugely significant, as home advantage in the play-offs isn’t just desirable but a necessity.

Leaving aside the history of play-off results in the Pro12/14 for a second – 22 home wins out of 24 matches seeing as you are wondering – check out the recent history of European results against the four South African teams. Just two of them, Edinburgh and Connacht, have won there this season.

bundee-aki-is-tackled-by-vincent-tshituka Bundee Aki helped Connacht beat the Lions. Source: Christiaan Kotze/INPHO

In other words, you want to finish in the top four – and get a home quarter-final – if you have any title ambition. That’s why we saw Ulster and Munster pick the strongest teams they possibly could on Friday; that’s why they both went at it full-pelt; one team emotionally drained by a European game they week before, the other energised following an entirely different outcome in their Champions Cup tie.

As things stand, Leinster top the table and need just a point (given their superior points differential) from their final two games to secure home advantage throughout the play-offs. But the race for second, for fourth, for eighth, has made this league a lot more watchable than previous editions of it.

Stormers occupy second spot now, closely followed by Munster in third, Sharks in fourth, Ulster in fifth, all three teams just one point shy of South African side, Stormers. In fact, just four points separate second from eighth.

Every point matters. Right now Ulster and Sharks are battling for the right to get fourth and a home quarter-final. As things stand, Dan McFarland’s team will have to get their passports stamped and head south to Durban for the last eight tie. A 12-hour flight is no way to prepare for a season-defining match.

As it happens, Ulster host the Sharks on the final day of the regular-season in Belfast. That game, not to mention this weekend’s date with Edinburgh, already has a must-win feel to it, a play-off prior to the play-offs.

craig-casey-celebrates-with-keith-earls-after-he-scores-a-try Ulster need wins after losing to Munster. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Connacht already know what that feeling is like. They’ve been in do-or-die mode for the last two rounds, scrapping their way to wins in Treviso and Johannesburg against Benetton and the Lions, going at them as if they were cup finals.

That’s when you know certain things are functioning well in a competition, when the game of the weekend ends up being the one between tenth and 12th, when – in the third last round of the regular season – a dozen teams felt they had something to play for.

We needed that because the absence of relegation has often been used as a stick to beat the Pro14/URC, in the sense it creates a purposeless existence for teams in the lower half of the table. Since the expansion of the play-offs to eight sides, more meaning has been attached to games at the back end of the calendar.

An even bigger plus, it has to be stressed, have been the four new entries from South Africa. Unlike the Southern Kings – a South African version of Zebre – these franchises can play. To be fair, so could the Cheetahs whenever the mood took them, but there’s little doubt that the Stormers, Sharks, Bulls and Lions are a class above.

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You only have to look at the league table to realise that. A year ago, Connacht finished the regular season with eight wins and eight defeats from 16 games, the same set of results they have posted this season. The difference is that a year ago Connacht had the fourth best record in the league with eight wins. This season, eight wins gets you tenth place.

It was as recently as March they were sixth; as recently as February that all four South African sides were in the bottom nine, but then borders opened up, travel resumed and the Irish/Scots/Welsh and Italians discovered what it was like to play at altitude, in soaring temperatures, after a long-haul flight.

Of the 24 games played on South African soil between Southern and Northern Hemisphere sides since then, 22 have ended in home wins. “Look, I am biased, I am a South African who was part of the Bulls for a very long time but I must say that the north-south combination is going to be fascinating in the coming years,” said Johann van Graan.

“The fact that they (the South African sides) struggled up in the north at the start of the season and currently all the (European) teams that have gone down there are struggling to get results is going to bring a different dynamic to the competition.

 “You might potentially get three South African teams qualifying for the knock-out phases and the knock-on effect of that is qualification for Europe.

“I really think it will be good for the URC in the coming years.”

Never mind the coming years, the coming weeks should be gripping. How often, if ever, has that been said about this competition? While it still has some way to go to win universal respect – and participants like Zebre may prevent it from ever getting that – it is going the right way.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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