'What I'm hearing is the final is going to be in South Africa'
The inaugural season of the United Rugby Championship (URC) is poised to have an intriguing twist as it is rumoured that the June 18 final will be played in South Africa for the first time. In its previous iterations as the PRO14/16 the finals were always played in the UK or Ireland, either with a designated final venue or at the home of the top-ranked team.
However, having axed the Cheetahs and the Kings from the lineup and introduced the leading four South African franchises into the tournament, officials are now said to be considering staging the end-of-season URC showpiece in the southern hemisphere in an effort to extend the profile of the five-country competition.
While the franchises from South Africa all endured difficult starts to their maiden season in the URC, sometimes losing heavily on their European tours, the momentum has now shifted and some European teams have been badly beaten on their southern hemisphere travels in recent weeks.
That has resulted in a shake-up on the table where the top eight teams will qualify for the quarter-finals. The Stormers (43 points), Bulls (42) and Sharks (41) now respectively occupy the sixth, seventh and eighth places and they are expected to climb even higher as Edinburgh (44), Munster (47) and Glasgow and Ulster (both 50) and within range heading into the final rounds of regulation season fixtures where champions Leinster are leading the way on 60 points.
The Irish province would feel they are in pole position to earn the right to host the final in Dublin but that assumption is set to be scuppered. The four teams finishing in the top four will have home advantage in the quarter-finals and with momentum behind the South African teams, they are set to potentially have a decisive say in that last-eight round.
This progress had piqued the interest of URC administrators and with a tournament-best attendance of 19,436 attending last Saturday’s Bulls-Ulster game in Pretoria, the speculation is growing that the final will now be staged in South Africa. Speaking about the URC and South Africa on the latest episode of The Rugby Pod, show co-host Jim Hamilton said: “It’s all going to come down to Leinster at the end of the season so the big question around the URC is, who can beat Leinster? Ulster, that’s it. Just. But I am telling you now a Stormers or a Bulls could beat Leinster I reckon on the day.
“It has not been formalised yet but what I am hearing, because there is a lot of who knows, is that the final is going to be in South Africa. So having a final in South Africa will be class as a commentator but that is where you are thinking, can Leinster win it again?
“The fact that the South African teams are coming good now, the fact they are comfortable now and the conditions… but the big thing around last weekend was the officials. Big Stevie Ferris was going off on one around the Ulster-Bulls game and rightly so…
“The South Africans are not just dominant, they are extremely dominant physically and that is the worry… comfortable wins across the board. We have seen 40 points, 50 points by South African teams on anyone who has gone there. It is good for the URC but is it good for the teams that are getting absolutely hosed by them going down there? Well, I’m sure they are having a good little mini-tour in the sun.”
Fellow co-host Andy Goode agreed about the improvement of the South African franchises in the URC. “I’ve said it before about the South African teams, the way their season is worked out it’s all based around the Rugby Championship, the Springboks, and when they play in Super Rugby. We have obviously seen Super Rugby start over in Australia and New Zealand over the last few weeks. These guys are used to playing this time of year.
“We are seeing these South African sides playing a lot of their international stars because they are building up to the July internationals. We have seen the South Africans not perform earlier in the season, October and November time when their internationals are not playing because they are in the Rugby Championship and then on the November tour. Now you are seeing the value of the true strength of the South African team and all four won this weekend. They just looked like a different kettle of fish really.”
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