The 2023/2024 United Rugby Championship (URC) has already pushed through six rounds of action and things are interestingly poised going into the festive period.
For the South African teams there has been much to navigate with the hangover of a fourth Rugby World Cup title meaning most Springboks only returned at the end of November with some still yet to make an on-field appearance.
With that in mind, Planet Rugby takes stock of where all the South African teams are at this stage and what is required for the rest of the season with the local derbies on the horizon.
Table position: 3rd
Results: Bulls 63-21 Scarlets, Ulster 26-19 Bulls, Zebre 29-54 Bulls, Cardiff 12-18 Bulls, Edinburgh 31-23 Bulls, Bulls 53-27 Connacht
Evaluation: The Pretoria-based side is easily the best-placed team from the south having won four from six games so far including a 50% win rate on their tour of the northern hemisphere. Jake White’s team have shown their impressive depth and played some quality rugby thus far. Outside of the Edinburgh game, the Bulls have not really dropped the ball and look like a team that is starting to find their feet after a couple seasons of White prioritising depth in his selection.
— Official Blue Bulls (@BlueBullsRugby) November 27, 2023
Looking forward: Much like all the teams from the south, the next couple of months are loaded with local derbies and European fixtures which brings a unique challenge. The Bulls have been comfortably the second-best team in South Africa since the inception of the URC. They have had the number on the Sharks and Lions but lost six in a row to the Stormers. This will need to change and the Bulls have a solid shot at a domestic clean sweep this season. It will take some effort with the Sharks on the rise after the return of their Springboks whilst the Stormers relish a north-south derby.
Outside of this, White has to cope with the rigours of European competition intertwined with the URC. The former Springboks coach has planned for this and now his impressive depth will be tested. The Bulls have fallen just short over the last couple of seasons and they are very well placed to buck that trend provided they dominate the local derbies.
Table position: 10th
Results: Lions 33-35 Stormers, Edinburgh 17-16 Lions, Benetton 15-10 Lions, Scarlets 23-24 Lions, Ulster 24-17 Lions, Lions 61-19 Zebre
Evaluation: As always, the Lions have been passionate and committed this season, managing some impressive results against Zebre and the Scarlets. However, that does not paint their season accurately as they ran the Stormers, Edinburgh and Ulster close, with the latter two away from home. Sanele Nohamba has been a superstar for the side, who look to be enjoying the way they are playing. It would be interesting to see where the team would be had they managed to get over the line in those tight games. Still, something is brewing in Johannesburg.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 22, 2023
Looking forward: The task is the same as everyone else; survive the local derbies whilst playing in European competition. For the Lions, they have done well as is, but every season struggle to find a way to win local derbies no matter how well they play. Winning these matches in conditions and territories that are familiar is a huge part of being successful in the URC. In the past, the Lions have played well but lacked complete performances, leaving them short of the Champions Cup spots. No doubt they will have their eye on Europe’s top-flight but it will take a massive shift over the next couple of months.
Table position: 12th
Results: Lions 33-35 Stormers, Stormers 52-7 Scarlets, Glasgow Warriors 20-9 Stormers, Benetton 20-17 Stormers, Munster 10-3 Stormers, Cardiff 31-24 Stormers
Evaluation: Simply put it has been a horror start to the season for the Cape Town side. Head coach John Dobson would have hoped to get more out of this period before his Rugby World Cup winners return but that’s not the case. A nervous win against the Lions and a runaway triumph against the Scarlets are the only positive results which were followed by four losses. The games against Benetton and Cardiff were particularly poor with the side guilty of overplaying and not capitalising on the key moments. Safe to say they need the clarity of Manie Libbok at 10, the X-factor of Damian Willemse and the experience of Deon Fourie.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 25, 2023
Looking forward: A stronger start would have given Dobson more options in re-integrating his Springboks but now it is a chasing game. The Stormers have a very strong record against their local rivals having only lost once against South African opposition since the inception of the URC in 2021. That is very much at risk and they need to find their feet very fast before the derbies roll in. If the Stormers clean sweep the southern teams they could well be back on track. This is made that much harder with Champions Cup games against holder La Rochelle, Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks in between the local derbies. It is time for the Stormers to show that same mentality that powered them to a URC title. Massive period ahead.
Table position: 14th
Results: Munster 34-21 Sharks, Leinster 34-13 Sharks, Ospreys 19-5 Sharks, Zebre 12-10 Sharks, Sharks 12-13 Connacht, Sharks 69-14 Dragons
Evaluation: The sleeping giant. Success in Durban always felt inevitable since the Sharks took on new owners but since then it has been the opposite with the team failing to live up to the expectations set by their high-powered squad. They brought in John Plumtree to coach the side and have struggled to adjust until their star Springboks returned. That demolition of the Dragons last weekend was a warning shot to all other teams.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 25, 2023
Looking forward: Of course, the big win will provide a buzz of excitement within the squad and rightly so. The players such as Eben Etzebeth and Lukhanyo Am add massively to the group whilst there are TWO World Cup-winning scrum-halves to choose from. Aphelele Fassi is finding form at the right time whilst Makazole Mapimpi is rolling back the years. If this team gels it could be very interesting to see. Perhaps they are still lacking pure execution and decision-making at fly-half but the pieces of the puzzle are there otherwise. The Durbanites have a chance to shake up the hierarchy in South Africa and are certainly capable of a clean sweep. However, and it is a big one, this team needs to learn to master the big moments in tight games. If they can achieve that with their firepower squad it could be dangerous for the URC.