Yes we can see the puzzled looks on faces with this headline, but all of a sudden the competition has come down to Ireland vs South Africa, and a foreshadow of this November’s Test between the two countries and their ultimate showdown in the pool stages of next year’s World Cup. The action that will unfold over the coming weeks in the URC between the top three Irish and South African provincial sides will give us a fascinating insight into what we can expect when the players don their respective national jerseys come the fall and next year’s World Cup.
Despite some initial false starts the tournament has blossomed this year into a top quality international competition dominated by sides from the two countries. In a short space of time it has become a genuine feast of North/South rugby. For Ireland it is the kind of preparation they could have only dreamed of in the past, and for South Africa it is exposure week in week out to Northern Hemisphere rugby and how to navigate it come the World Cup. For the South African sides there is the added risk of how to balance what is essentially 12 months of club and international rugby without a break for their players, and the risks to player welfare that are inherent with such a schedule whilst still remaining competitive at the highest levels.
In short South African and Irish players are going to get to know each other very well over the next 18 months at both club and International level. Preparation which will be invaluable as both countries seek to emerge the dominant side from next year’s World Cup Pool B.
It’s one small step for Irish provincial rugby but a giant leap for the national side in terms of depth and experience
Ireland are clearly benefitting from the fact that in the case of all four provincial teams, players are contracted first and foremost to the IRFU and from there to their clubs. This helps provide a clear separation of duties from club and country, as well as a constant centrally managed conveyor belt of young talent coming through the ranks. It is that steady supply that has provided the national squad with such a wealth of talent and depth. With the three big Irish sides, Leinster, Munster and Ulster, having been so dominant this year in European competition, the national side is set to reap the harvest as Ireland prepares for next year’s World Cup in France.
Look at any of the top three Irish sides and count the number of faces aged 25 and under who have been their teams’ leading points scorers this year both at URC and Heineken Cup level.
Leinster: Jimmy O’Brien, Dan Sheehan, Ciaran Frawley, Max Deegan, Scott Penny, Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, Ronan Kelleher, Tommy O’Brien, David Hawkshaw.
Munster: Ben Healy, Jack Crowley, Craig Casey, Gavin Coombes,Fineen Wycherly, Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Sullivan, Shane Daly, Josh Wycherly, Liam Coombes, Diarmuid Barron.
Ulster: Nathan Doak, Robert Baloucoune, Ethan Mcilroy, Michael Lowry, James Hume, Declan Moore, Tom Stewart, Angus Curtis, Marcus Rea.
Add to that a veritable busload of top flight experienced internationals and on any given day, Ireland will have no problem fielding a matchday 23 able to go toe to toe with the best. Ireland’s blend of exuberant youth and established Test veterans is probably the envy of most International Coaches.
For Leinster their quarter final opponent will be either Edinburgh or Glasgow, but a South African opponent will most likely await them in the semis. Leinster ran the top South African side the Sharks close in South Africa, only losing by 5 points, but at home South African sides have struggled to come to grips with the men from Dublin. Leinster’s two week tour of South Africa saw them beaten twice, by both the Sharks and the Stormers, but even against the Stormers and with their so called “B-” side they still managed a losing bonus point.
Munster too have been an invincible nut for South African sides to crack at home, and even on Munster’s two week tour to South Africa the Bulls and Lions were lucky to squeak out narrow wins against the men from Limerick’s “B-” squad. Meanwhile Ulster have also had a similar track record, but will have been frustrated with their rather hefty loss to the Bulls in Pretoria. They have yet to play their opponents for this weekend the Sharks, and with the men from Durban in such red hot form at the moment, there are no doubt a few nerves floating around Kingspan stadium in Belfast this week.
Whatever happens the groundwork laid by Irish sides in the coming weeks will have a huge bearing on preparation for Ireland’s encounter with South Africa come November 5th and ultimately their Pool B encounter at next year’s World Cup with the Springboks, which most likely will decide who wins the Pool and their route through the knockout stages. In terms of getting to know your most critical opponent in the opening stages of next year’s global showdown Ireland, as a result of the URC, have been given a golden opportunity.
South Africa finds itself in the best of all possible worlds in terms of exposure to the best of Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby, but the risks of player fatigue and burnout have never been greater!
South African sides had an exceptionally slow start to life in the URC. So slow that the initial impressions were that a mistake had been made in bringing South African sides into a competition that is so vastly different to Super Rugby and how it is played. 6 months later and we couldn’t be singing a different tune if we tried. Admittedly South African sides have benefitted in the last two months from playing at home and often against slightly undercooked Irish sides, but their meteoric rise up the table standings can only be described as impressive.
The South African URC teams have put on some truly stunning displays of attacking rugby in the latter half of the competition, and their inclusion in next year’s Heineken Cup in addition to the URC is a mouth watering prospect. Their competitiveness in Europe has made them so attractive that they are starting to lure back some big names, Eben Etzebeth signing with the Sharks is the first of many we expect to see over the years.
However, with South Africa still committed to playing the Rugby Championship till at least 2025, the question of player welfare starts to become problematic. Let’s take the example of a star player like winger Makazole Mapimpi of the Sharks for 2022. He will have been playing in the URC since January. The Sharks are likely to get to at least the semis of the competition which will take them up to early June. It’s a short break and then straight into a tough 3 Test tour against Wales back in South Africa. He’ll roll straight out of that and into the Rugby Championship, opening with 2 tough tests against New Zealand. While all that’s going on, there is the start of the 2022-23 URC season and the first round of matches in the Heineken Cup in September and October. To top it all off, there are then the November tours featuring a challenging encounter with Ireland on November 5th, followed by France and England. He’ll end the year with another couple of rounds of Heineken Cup action. In January he’ll roll straight into more URC/Heineken Cup and ultimately the Springboks’ preparation for the World Cup culminating in their Pool B clash with Ireland for Pool top honors on 22 September next year – burnout anyone????
South Africa will be competitive across the board make no mistake, but the management of the national team now becomes a major headache. They don’t quite have the conveyor belt of talent that Ireland seem to be producing, so in a challenging year ahead of them, it seems they almost need two different Springbok sides. One that can take on the lesser mortals of teams like Wales, Italy, Australia and Argentina and another higher level squad to manage teams like New Zealand, Ireland, France and England. You could argue that any other team has similar issues, but at least for Ireland, their players get a break in August whereas many of South Africa’s URC stars will be up to their armpits in combating New Zealand that month. Both squads will need to cut it at international level but one will definitely need to be quicker at going from zero to hero and lasting the full eighty minutes both at home and on the road, and we haven’t even figured in the injury factor.
South Africa is clearly a World Cup favorite, but in a nation faced with slightly more challenges than most, balancing it all will be a fine juggling act that will require the utmost skill from players and management alike.
How all of this pans out, will no doubt become clearer as the next few weeks of fascinating URC action unfolds for both Irish and South African sides. We have a hunch that it is likely to be one of the hottest topics of debates in bars and pubs across the lands in the two countries. Make sure you don’t miss it!