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After an offside start, SA just might blitz URC opponents

Sport

THE WORST OF TIMES

After an offside start, SA just might blitz URC opponents

SA teams have the chance to make this weekend’s round a watershed one

Sports reporter
John Dobson's Stormers have gone unbeaten in their last four URC games. They are up against Connacht in Galway at the weekend, in conditions that are going to be challenging.
IN FORM John Dobson's Stormers have gone unbeaten in their last four URC games. They are up against Connacht in Galway at the weekend, in conditions that are going to be challenging.
Image: Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images

South Africans have understandably taken a while to warm to the United Rugby Championship (URC).

Given the way Super Rugby was ingrained in the collective consciousness, the URC was always going to take a while to capture the local rugby public’s imagination.

A competition that spanned 25 years can be brought to a halt by the stroke of a pen, but ink cannot shift hearts and minds.

A competition that spanned 25 years can be brought to a halt by the stroke of a pen, but ink cannot shift hearts and minds.

What didn’t help was the start of the URC being delayed because of the pandemic, and once it got under way there was little to shout about for South African teams.

That the new competition has failed to yet resonate with South African audiences is perhaps also because the Lions, Stormers, Bulls and Sharks made an inglorious start in the competition.

One win from their first 16 matches, albeit all away from home, did not exactly ignite the type of enthusiasm SA competition organisers had hoped for.

The South African teams were then denied home comforts when their games here against international competition were postponed because of the Omicron variant. That proved another false dawn and South Africans have had to console themselves in the almost endless stream of derby matches.

It all contributed to the URC lacking lustre, but that may be about to change.

Even though SA’s teams are this weekend engaged in battles at different levels on the difficulty scale, they have the opportunity to make this a watershed round in the competition.

Apart from the Lions, who play the URC’s most-decorated team, Leinster in Dublin, there is genuine expectation SA’s franchises will start making an impact against foreign sides.

The Bulls play the competition’s cellar-dwellers Zebre in Parma and they will be firm favourites to return home with victory over the only side yet to record a win in this season’s contest.

The Bulls play the competition’s cellar-dwellers Zebre in Parma and they will be firm favourites to return home with victory over the only side yet to record a win in this season’s contest.

The Sharks also have reason to be bullish, though they may have cause not to be as sanguine when they square up to Benetton Treviso. The Bulls, having dominated the domestic landscape, travelled to Treviso for the final of the Rainbow Cup last year, but were comprehensively thumped 35-8 by the team that finished bottom of the last Pro 14.

The Stormers too, on their introduction to rugby on Italian soil, found the going tough when they lost to Benetton in the URC last year. Benetton make up a large contingent of the Italian national team and they will test the Sharks.

The Sharks however, who beat the Bulls in their most recent outing, are aware of the pitfalls and unlikely to repeat the mistakes their compatriots made in Treviso last year.

The Stormers also have reason to be chest-out, given their recent performances. They are the form side in the South African contingent, having gone unbeaten in their last four URC clashes. Only one of those games was at home, which will imbue coach John Dobson and his team with huge confidence to get the job done against Connacht in Galway.

Connacht are spiky opponents on home soil, while the conditions in Galway take a while to get used to. Dobson is in full anticipation of playing in 2°C on a wet surface, with fresh gusts breezing in from the Atlantic.

Connacht have lost three of their last five matches and have displayed vulnerabilities the Stormers can exploit.

The Lions, however, will be up against it when they play Leinster, who are true blue bloods of the game in Europe. The have won four European Champions Cup titles and won the URC’s forerunner, the Pro Rugby competition, eight times.

But on the whole, this weekend’s matchups should be seen as an opportunity for SA’s teams to make their presence felt in the competition.

They will return home next week and have a sequence of matches against European teams that should further underline that they belong in the competition. They may well start delivering that message this weekend.

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