No ‘Going South’ for SA Rugby

The decision by South African rugby to go north for their franchise matches, and to move away from the debilitating travel fatigue experienced by teams travelling west to east – in other words to Christchurch or Sydney – has much to do with the recent success of two of the SA franchises in the United Rugby Championship (URC). Also, as Stormers coach John Dobson said: “I think it has given us a march on Super Rugby teams. There were real contests all over the field, just like in international rugby… “ What’s not to like about the URC for South Africans? – Sandra Laurence

URC has delivered for SA on several fronts

From United Rugby Championship:

When the final whistle sounded on the DHL Stormers’ exciting win over Ulster, it ended a phase of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship that was vastly more competitive than semifinals involving teams from different continents tended to be in South Africa’s Super Rugby era.

And when the Vodacom Bulls beat Leinster in Dublin in the first semifinal on Friday, it was just a rare defeat in a URC playoff game for the hosts. It was also notable for being the first time the three time Super Rugby champions had won as a franchise in an overseas playoff game. All their title wins were at home and it was acknowledged at the time that had they had to travel for a final, it would have been a lot more difficult.

While we will never know for sure, it seems reasonable to assume that if the Bulls had been travelling to Christchurch for a semifinal against the Crusaders instead of to Dublin this past weekend, it would have been a much more complicated and near impossible task for them. That’s not to suggest that Leinster are an inferior team to Crusaders – just that the impact of travel fatigue is far less in the new competition the South African teams are involved in than it was in the old one.

When the Cell C Sharks beat the Stormers in a Cape Town semifinal 10 years ago, their coach John Plumtree was heard to wonder aloud what his side had really managed to secure. The Sharks had won a quarterfinal in Brisbane the week before, and because of their win in Cape Town, they had booked a return flight to Australasia, this time to play the Chiefs in New Zealand.

The Sharks had no chance and their coaches knew it. And it wasn’t as if the South Africans were always the only ones to suffer from the travel in the knock-out phases: the Crusaders benefited from it when the Highlanders had to return from SA for the 1999 final, and it worked against them when they had to fly back to play the Reds after winning a Cape Town semifinal in 2011.

Cape Town was the only venue where a New Zealand team ever won a playoff game on South African soil. And the only win on SA in a playoff game outside of a final by any Australasian team away from Cape Town was when the Brumbies won in Pretoria in 2013, when ironically they had current Bulls director of rugby, Jake White, as a coach.

The only South African wins in Australasia were two wins by the Sharks in Brisbane, the first in the inaugural Super 12 season of 1996 and the second the aforementioned win in 2012. It was far tougher for the South African sides to win in Australia and New Zealand for the simple reason of the time difference, and the fact the South Africans were flying into time rather than away from it.

Anyone who has flown west to east, from South Africa to New Zealand, will tell you how debilitating it is and how long it takes the body to recover. Apart from anything else, flying away from time also meant the teams would arrive in New Zealand in the middle of the buildup week rather than at the start of it. It may have been why no local team ever came close in a playoff game in New Zealand.

There was some expectation from the television commentators that the travel would catch up with the Bulls in Dublin, but if it did it wasn’t enough to have the impact it might have had they flown from South Africa to New Zealand. Not only is the time difference between Dublin and South Africa just an hour as opposed to nearly a day, it is also just an overnight flight.

While Ulster lost their semifinal to the Stormers, it was also a far more competitive semifinal than we were accustomed to in the Super Rugby era. And Edinburgh didn’t look too impacted by any travel fatigue when they lost to the Stormers in their quarterfinal either.

The South African teams travel even more now than they did in Super Rugby, but the similarity of time zones and the easier flight access just makes it so much easier, which has a positive impact on the quality of rugby.

There are other benefits, such as the one alluded to by Stormers coach John Dobson after his team’s win: The type of rugby played by the top URC teams is far closer to that at Test match level than Super Rugby was.

“We’ve enjoyed the tournament immensely and I think it is really good for our rugby. I think it has given us a march on Super Rugby teams. There were real contests all over the field, just like in international rugby, both in the Leinster game and here,” he said.

Couple the way the URC perhaps better prepares players for Test rugby, with the fairer contest and higher quality of rugby promoted by the less debilitating travel demands, and it adds up to a resounding thumbs up for SA’s decision to go north for their international franchise rugby.

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