'Very different' - Coaches and players on how the URC differs from Super Rugby
After the wake-up call of the first week the sharp learning curve the South African teams are on in the United Rugby Championship will steepen even further as the second round looks set to throw several of the varied challenges at them that make the new competition unique.
The Cell C Sharks will be the first South African team to play a URC game on a synthetic pitch as they travel to Glasgow to face the Glasgow Warriors on the Scotstoun 4G artificial surface on Saturday. The previous night the Vodacom Bulls, if the weather forecasts have it correct, are going to get a foretaste of what to expect later in the competition during the northern winter when they play in Galway, and it is going to be even tougher for the Stormers in Limerick 24 hours later.
Winds of 30 kilometres per hour and rain are expected for the Bulls game, while there is an 80% chance of rain and winds occasionally gusting beyond 65km/hour at the time of the Thomond Park clash between the Stormers and home team Munster.
So there will have to be a game adjustment for those teams in addition to whatever else they absorbed and have internalised from their defeats to in the opening round of competition. And for the one successful SA team from the opening round, the Emirates Lions, there’s going to be a necessary tweak to game strategy as they move from Italy to the different challenge they will face playing in Wales as they face up to Scarlets on Friday night.
Wing Yaw Penxe has played on the 4G surface before when he played PRO14 for the Southern Kings and says that he and his teammates are heading for a different experience to what they are used to when they play in Glasgow. But he says he is looking forward to the challenge posed by a quicker surface and therefore a quicker game.
“The ball does travel quite a bit faster, and if it goes to ground won’t stick like on grass,” said Penxe. “Us as players will have to run a bit more and the game will be a bit faster as well. The ball really races when you let it bounce.”
The pitch though isn’t the only variation to what they are used to that the Sharks can look forward to. They are also going to be playing for the first time against the more racy, high tempo Scottish playing style that they will also encounter when they play against Edinburgh later in the competition.
“The two Scottish teams will bring a style that will be distinctively different from what we will experience playing against the other teams as they have been influenced by Scotland coach Gregor Townsend, who was of course attack coach of the British and Irish Lions,” said Sharks defence coach John McFarland.
McFarland worked with Heyneke Meyer at both the Springboks and before that the Bulls, so he has experience of international rugby and Super Rugby. He reckons that being a defence coach in the URC is as challenging as it is in Super Rugby.
“There’s not really much difference to be honest. If the opposition get into your 22 they will maul you and come at you around the corner, so you must not give the opposition penalties that will allow them to get into your 22,” said McFarland.
Needless to say, after the Sharks conceded 17 penalties to just six in last week’s heavy defeat to Munster in Limerick, McFarland doesn’t have to think too hard about what his team needs to rectify. It’s all about discipline.
“There were 12 entries into our 22 last week, all of them were from penalties, and Munster didn’t get into our 22 any other way,” he said.
The Stormers’ defence coach Norman Laker isn’t as experienced or well traveled as McFarland is, but he has coached at Super Rugby level and doesn’t have much doubt that being an attack coach in URC will be more challenging than it is in the former competition.
“It is very different. If you play against the five New Zealand franchises you know what you are going to get, they are going to be physical and throw the ball around a lot,” says Laker.
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“If you make a mistake, they make you pay, and it is the same with the Australian teams. The two countries play similar styles. So if you are on a four game tour, you can prep for pretty much the same playing style in all four games. In the URC there is much more variation.
“Benetton, who we played in the first week, are a physical team who have changed a bit because of their coaching, now we go to Munster who have world class players and a different style with South African and Australian (Stephen Larkham) influence in their coaching staff. Then we go to Edinburgh, who will throw the Scottish style of playing at us. Then we close off at Newport against the Dragons and that will be our first exposure to Welsh rugby.”
For the Stormers’ centre Ruhan Nel the challenge of playing against such varied and different styles and influences each week is exciting but also for him not entirely new as it is reminiscent of what he faced in his days as a key member of the successful Springbok Sevens team.
“These are the games you want to play, you want to experience what it is like to play against the Ireland style and then the next week you are playing against a Scottish team, and it reminds me a lot of Sevens,” said Nel. “In Sevens you can play against England in one game and then in the next against Fiji. You’ve got to be adaptable and adjust quickly, and it will be the same in this competition.”
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