URC – A Fitting Final And Winner After Pulsating Season

 

Here is an interesting statistic that confirms just how competitive the Vodacom United Rugby Championship is and how little there is to choose between the top teams - after three seasons no team that has topped the log has gone on to win the competition.

Indeed, no team that has started the Finals Series in pole position after winning the league phase of the competition has gone beyond the semi-final round. Leinster fell short twice, and Munster joined them as league winners who stumbled at the penultimate stop on the road to the decider.

The winners of the competition have been DHL Stormers, who won the competition in the inaugural season after being runners-up to Leinster on the log, Munster (5th) and now Glasgow Warriors (4th).

All of which underlines the jeopardy faced by the teams once they get into the playoffs, and we might add too that while the quest for top spot on the log is driven by the need to get the perceived massive advantage that comes with playing a final at home, the last two finals have been won by the visiting team. And both Munster, who went to Cape Town last year, and now Glasgow, have had to travel across the equator to get the job done.

The Vodacom Bulls crossed the equator to beat Leinster in the semi-final in the first season, and the Stormers, although they had a logistical challenge to face and travelled to Glasgow in dribs and drabs, which their coach John Dobson said was far from ideal, came pretty close to upsetting the eventual champions on their home patch of the Scotstoun in the quarterfinal a few weeks back with a severely depleted team.

The message from the away wins in cross-hemisphere games is that the ask is far more realistic in the URC than it was when South Africa was competing in Super Rugby. In 26 years of this country being in Super Rugby, the only place any visiting team won playoff games was Cape Town, where the Stormers developed a reputation for being chokers. And the only place in the Antipodes that a South African team ever won a playoff game was Brisbane, where the Sharks did it twice, once in a quarterfinal and once in the semi-final.

The greater rate of wins after long travel comes down to one of the central factors in the SA decision to move north for their premier franchise/regional/club competition - the similarity in time zones. It is hard to imagine Glasgow having the energy they had in the second half of a pulsating Loftus final that was a great advert for the competition had their journey been from say Johannesburg to Christchurch, where there is a 10-hour time difference and jetlag is therefore unavoidable. There is no jetlag factor in the URC, and Munster and Glasgow have shown that in consecutive finals, as the Bulls did in beating Leinster in 2022 and then returning to be competitive in a Cape Town final.

Of course, Leinster, who are a shadow Ireland team, may be the standout team if they ever properly hit their straps, but that hasn’t happened yet in the knock-out stages after three seasons of the URC. And here’s another interesting fact supporting the closeness of the competition - the URC final has never been won by more than five points. In fact, five points have been the difference in all three finals.

So the evidence is pointing to a closely fought competition that has six teams that are capable of winning it. Meaning the top six finishers from this season. Sixth-placed Ulster may have slipped a bit this season after being in the top three in the first three editions, but they did beat Leinster twice, home and away, in league play. And came quite close to knocking over Munster in Limerick in the final league game.

With the Hollywoodbets Sharks a slumbering giant who should surely soon awaken there is reason to believe that next season the number of potential winners of the URC will swell to seven, and if Benetton continue their upward trend, even eight.

That’s great for the competition and great for fans, though maybe not for coaches and fans who will have high stress levels as there will be little margin for error going forward. Many of the teams in the bottom half of the log are improving too, so there are fewer easy games.

Bulls fans will be disappointed and so will many other South Africans who would like to have seen the Pretoria team join the Stormers as winners of the cross-hemisphere competition, but few would deny the better team on the day one as Glasgow underlined just how little there is to choose between the top sides.

It was a mighty achievement by Glasgow, one described by the Scotland rugby correspondent for the London newspaper, The Sunday Times, as “Without a doubt, the single most impressive feat from a Scottish team in the entire professional era”.

Palmer was full of praise for the action-packed and high-tempo final, a game that had everything and which was a fitting finale to what had been an outstanding URC season full of intrigue, concluded in unbearable tension as the Bulls camped on the Glasgow line, with the visitors by then reduced to 14 men, in the final play, and followed by the unbridled emotion of the winners at the final whistle.

The game was played in front of a capacity crowd of more than 50,000 and while most of those people would have left feeling disappointed that their team lost, they should have felt privileged to have been part of such a magnificent occasion and at a game that had everything.

2023/24 Vodacom United Rugby Championship final (Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria)
Vodacom Bulls 16-21 Glasgow Warriors 

Past finals
2022/23 Cape Town: DHL Stormers 14-19 Munster
2021/22 Cape Town: DHL Stormers 18-13 Vodacom Bulls