South African sides yearning home comforts in United Rugby Championship after baptisms of fire on the road

Published Categorised as Editorial, Provincial Rugby Men, Ulster Rugby, United Rugby Championship

It was a baptism of fire for the four South African sides after their month-plus long tour across the equator as the new United Rugby Championship got underway in September.

Their addition to the former PRO14 was expected to make the tournament more competitive and stronger.

A glance at the league table after the first four rounds may not reflect that anticipated impact.

TEAMPLWDPDBPPTS
Ulster44075420
Leinster440100319
Munster44073319
Glasgow Warriors43020315
Ospreys430-3113
Edinburgh42110313
Cardiff 4204210
Benetton420-18210
Stormers411-617
Dragons410-637
Connacht410026
Lions410-3126
Scarlets410-4626
Sharks410-2815
Bulls410-5215
Zebre4000-9211

Three Irish Provinces in the top three places – all unbeaten – a mix of Scottish and Welsh occupying the next spots with Benetton flying the Italian flag in eighth place.

Zebre prop things up, the Italians will no doubt continue to struggle as they did in the former guises of this competition.

As for the South Africans, the Bulls, Sharks, Lions and Stormers all secured one win each in their four matches, with the Stormers the top performers having also drawn one game and picked up a losing bonus point – the Lions securing two bonus points on their travels.

It has been a learning curve for the Southern Hemisphere sides and playing four games on the bounce away from home has obviously been difficult, as well as having just completed Currie Cup competitions back home.

The big talking point has been around refereeing, with coaches, players and commentators claiming it has been hard to adapt to how European officials interpret the laws.

It is hard to understand how the same laws which are applied worldwide in whatever competition or level you play can be interpreted so differently?

From watching the games, it is clear the South Africans were not perhaps seeing the breakdown area being as physically contested as it is by URC teams and that was the main bone of contention from the tourists.

Irrespective of the issues, it would be foolish to think the likes of the Bulls and Sharks, will not be pushing hard in the top eight come the end of the campaign.

They will not return to action until the weekend of Nov 26, by which time they will have refreshed and worked on their learning from the past four weeks.

And playing in their own backyards, on back-to-back weekends, you would expect a few more wins. Vodacom Bulls v Munster has a really good look about it on November 27.

When, as I expect they do, find their feet, expect them to be a strong force in the competition in the season and years ahead.

Prior to that, there is one more round for the regular clubs this weekend, before they break for the November International Test window.

Connacht v Ulster at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, is probably the pick of the games, although the Welsh derby featuring Cardiff and Dragons and the 2nd v 4th clash as Glasgow entertain Leinster should provide quality viewing.

Ulster go to Dublin as the only side to have secured maximum points from their four games, something they have managed to do in spite of scrappy performances and missing a host of who would be regarded as frontline players.

I felt the 26-10 win against Emirates Lions at a vibrant Kingspan Stadium (11,500 fans were in the Ravenhill Park venue) followed one of their better performances – although BBC Sport NI pundit, Tommy Bowe, disagreed with me as we left the venue.

I am not one to disagree with a player of Bowe’s distinction, but for me Ulster stood up to a stern physical challenge presented by the Lions, were defensively sound and showed inventiveness and creativity, something perhaps lacking in wins over Zebre and Benetton.

Admittedly, in spite of creating opportunities they failed to take enough of them, but that has to be a positive and a sign that Dan Soper’s attacking plans are starting to take shape.

Bowe and I did agree that Ulster needed to find another level ahead of tough tests when the international break is over against Leinster, Ospreys, Clermont (all away) and Northampton Saints.

Connacht lost narrowly away to Munster (20-18) and Andy Friend’s side have shown a mixed bag to date. Their performance at home against Vodacom Bulls in a 34-7 win was outstanding, but a week later they lost at home to Dragons.

However, the Western Province have a habit of raising their game a little higher when it comes to playing Ulster and they did win the last confrontation at the Aviva during the height of the Covid pandemic.

With a lengthy break to come, Ulster will want to finish this block of games out with an unbeaten run, Connacht will want to end a run of losing form – this should be another huge Irish derby on Saturday evening.

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