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URC has proved doubters wrong says Bok legend

By Simon Thomas
Coenie Ooshuizen of the Sharks during the United Rugby Championship match between DHL Stormers and Hollywoodbets Sharks at DHL Stadium on December 30, 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

World Cup-winning former Springboks skipper John Smit says all the doubters of the BKT URC have been proved wrong, as he explains just why it has become so popular in his homeland.

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It’s now into the third season of the big four South African franchises competing in the cross-country league and attendances have hit a new high there, while three of the sides are currently sitting in top eight play-off spots.

Smit, who captained the ‘Boks to World Cup glory in 2007, said: “There was a lot of scepticism at the beginning, but this tournament has really convinced all the doubters.

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Johan Grobbelaar on Leinster challenge

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Johan Grobbelaar on Leinster challenge

“I do think the rise of BKT URC has been phenomenal.

“I have been a promoter of us moving north for quite some time, even when I played.

“I really thought the best scenario for us – both commercially and rugby-wise – was to play across the same time-zone against the northern hemisphere.

“That view was probably created by my stints at Clermont Auvergne in France and Saracens in England, in terms of the rugby experience I had at those two clubs.

“When we didn’t have a lot of contact with the northern hemisphere, we all thought Super Rugby was this thing that sat on a pedestal.

“But in my first season with Clermont, playing in the Heineken Cup, I realised just what a competitive international tournament that was.”

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Sharks <a href=
Ulster URC match report” width=”1920″ height=”1080″ /> Sharks’ Jaden Hendrikse tackles Ulster’s Steven Kitshoff (Photo by Shaun Roy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Former hooker Smit continued: “I feel we are better placed in this current scenario because we are having to play different types of rugby.

“We are having to adapt, evolve and innovate more than when we were in Super Rugby where there was only really one style that everybody had to play to gain the most success.

“In the BKT URC, all teams have to be able to play more than one style and to be able to adapt to the weather and the different types of pitches.

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“You encounter very different climates. European teams have to travel to the heat of South Africa in December, January, February and we’ve got to go to the cold at the same time.

“There’s a difference in the kind of rugby that’s played because of the contrasting conditions.

“I do think that is helping us at an international level and the same goes for all the countries involved, in terms of being able to adapt for Test matches.

“The cool thing about the BKT URC is it’s provided something really different for all of us, especially for us here in South Africa.

“We have always just been in Super Rugby. Having a competition now that’s got such an international flavour, with players from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, England, is amazing for us.

“I have interest in teams in the north that have players from South Africa that I recognise. There are a lot more touch points.”

Speaking at a URC media round table, the 111-cap Smit added: “I just find it so refreshing and it’s great to see that the log is so jammed. It’s phenomenally competitive.

United Rugby Championship

P
W
L
D
PF
PA
PD
BP T
BP-7
BP
Total
1
Leinster
12
10
2
0
49
2
Bulls
12
9
3
0
45
3
Glasgow
12
9
3
0
44
4
Munster
12
7
4
1
39
5
Stormers
12
7
5
0
35
6
Edinburgh
12
8
4
0
34
7
Ulster
12
7
5
0
34
8
Lions
12
6
6
0
34
9
Connacht
12
7
5
0
33
10
Benetton
12
7
4
1
33
11
Ospreys
12
6
6
0
30
12
Cardiff Rugby
12
3
8
1
23
13
Scarlets
12
3
9
0
16
14
Sharks
12
2
10
0
14
15
Zebre
12
1
10
1
14
16
Gwent Dragons
12
2
10
0
11

“I would say the South African players weren’t sure what to expect to start with, but I think they are pretty happy. They definitely don’t miss those five week tours to New Zealand and Australia.

“We have also got a chance of winning most of the games that we play – probably 70 per cent of the fixtures.

“If you look back to Super Rugby, if you are away to the Crusaders and you haven’t beaten them in ten years, the self belief is not exactly brimming over.

“The other factor with a fixture like that is are people going to wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning to watch us get smashed in Christchurch? Probably not.

“The time zone plays a big role in the growth and popularity of the BKT URC across all the supporters of all of these teams,

“We are all sleeping at the same time and waking up at the same time.

“Those are the things that make a difference to the growth of the BKT URC.”

Running the rule over the four South African sides, former Sharks star Smit said: “We have two franchises that have contracted in a great fashion and have delivered in the Stormers and the Bulls.

“They have been competitive for the last two or three years.

John Smit
John Smit

“Then you look at the Lions’ level of performance and their ability to beat teams with sometimes more than double the player bill and you realise they really are a great unit. They are a difficult team to beat as we saw last weekend (winning away at Connacht).

“The Sharks have a magnificent looking team, but are at the bottom end. It’s like walking through a parking lot and seeing a Ferrari and then as you peer through the window there is no gear box. That’s the reality.

“Being down the bottom of the log with that squad, it does beg for answers that all of us desperately want.

“I wish I had them because that’s a big part of my life and that Sharks badge sits ingrained into my soul.

“To watch them struggle is difficult, so the win last weekend (against Edinburgh) was magic. It’s wonderful to see them win again.”

As for who will win the title, Smit believes it will be one of the two sides taking part in Friday’s top-of-the-table clash in Dublin.

“I do think it’s going to be between Leinster and the Bulls this year,” he said.

“That’s why this weekend is that much more interesting.

“I think it’s important that Leinster shows them who is boss at home.

“I see the title-winner coming from the two teams at the top of the log at the moment. One of those takes the tournament.”

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Comments

7 Comments
R
RugCs 114 days ago

It’s impressive that we can see huge stadiums with attendance in the 40 000 to 50 000 region. It shows how popular this competition is becoming. What is even more impressive is the massive growth in broadcast viewership. The URC is one of the two best leagues in the World, the other being the Top14.

J
Jon 114 days ago

We are having to adapt, evolve and innovate more than when we were in Super Rugby where there was only really one style that everybody had to play to gain the most success.
Have = able to? Interesting what that one style might be?
I thought SA sides still had bad tours now, or at least bad schedule, months away? Those extra few hours flights have to be a killer though, no surprise to see their sides doing so badly at the start of the season each year. I wouldn’t enjoy that unfairness as a supporter.

B
Bob 115 days ago

No SA supporter miss Super Rugby - a product that is experiencing significant head wind in ANZ - the competition from rival codes are intense, match attendance figures are at a historical low and the negativity of commentators such as Kirwan and Wilson have accelerated the downward spiral in NZ. After the next RWC in 2027 sponsors will follow Qantas and start leaving in droves.

B
Bull Shark 115 days ago

I certainly don’t miss drinking beers at 8am in the morning watching rugby games being played in NZ.

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Tim 5 hours ago
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