How quickly things can change!
A year ago there was panic and concern about the performance of the South African teams in the Europe-based United Rugby Championship, but now — 12 months later — the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers are looking good.
I think the promising start to the new season has got a lot to do with how well the SA teams finished last year.
The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers were involved in the playoffs and the grand final was contested by the Stormers and Bulls in Cape Town and that strong finish has carried over into the 2022/23 season.
There is now confidence and belief in the four squads, something that I don’t think would have been there had South Africa not produced two finalists, in a final on home soil. Those are the fine margins and types of things that help teams grow and develop.
As the weeks passed last season so the SA teams started to adapt and grow and understand the way the Europeans play and how the referees manage the games. They quickly took everything on board and by the end of the first season of the URC, the local teams had made up the ground on their European counterparts.
And they’ve taken all of that into the new season.
The Stormers, the defending champions, are still playing ‘champagne rugby’ but by getting Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe in, and Joseph Dweba recruited, and locks who can help anchor the set-phases, the Capetonians have the forwards to match the backs.
And then, Manie Libbok has come good after showing promise at the Bulls and Sharks without doing anything really, while Evan Roos and Hacjivah Dayimani have given the team some power, with added flair.
The Sharks have followed a different route — by buying in some of the best in Kolisi, Mbonambi, Etzebeth, and Janse van Rensburg — but that is no surprise really considering they hadn’t done much with what they had at Currie Cup level.
With a lack of quality depth and new investors on board the Sharks were under pressure to perform, so opted to look outside of the region to strengthen. They’ve now got a powerful-looking team and it will be fascinating to see how they go when at full strength.
The Bulls have mixed it up, by pushing some of their youngsters, but also buying in quality players from elsewhere. Their big advantage, and boost, was beating Leinster away in the semifinals last season, which was massive for them (their final, really) but they have lost defence coach Joey Mongalo.
This is a big blow because Jake White now handles the defence when he should be focused on forwards or backs only and not system play. And while the Bulls have won all their games so far, they have leaked a lot of tries, which will be concerning.
And the Lions, well, they’ve started well, but then they also started well last season. They still look like a side uncertain of how to play; their big tests are still to come, and we must hope that they can continue to grow and shock a few teams in the weeks and months ahead. Their depth is a concern.
Let’s hope the SA teams continue to impress and rack up the wins, because this is one long, tough competition. ends