Why Munster victory only increases URC's intensity next season
The Vodacom United Rugby Championship final was played at the right venue as the competition continues its outreach into Africa but Munster taking the trophy home to Ireland might be good for the tournament going forward.
DHL Stormers fans might not agree, and neither should they, for a home win would have been a great boost for the region and kept the Cape team’s impressive momentum built up over a period of two years where, in terms of on field success, they’ve gone from rags to riches.
But the Stormers did win the trophy last year, so that is no longer a barrier that is needing crossing for the Cape team. Sometimes you need to lose a final to complete your rugby education and make you stronger, and in time that is how Stormers coach John Dobson is sure to look at it.
The images of Munster, Ireland and British and Irish Lions veterans Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls in tears as they embraced each other as the emotion flooded out of them following their heroic 19-14 win in front of 56 000 fans that broke a 12 year trophy drought, portrayed the kind of drama and emotion that gives a competition traction.
It also showed how much the URC trophy means to the Munster players, and when they arrive back in Limerick they will see how much it means to their fans as big celebrations are being planned for their return.
The drama and the emotion and the elation that Munster coach Graham Rowntree admitted he felt was a great advert for a competition which before the arrival of the South African teams was often considered not competitive enough and too predictable. Leinster were dominant and won four titles in a row in the last years it was known as the Guinness PRO14. The lack of a proper challenge from within Ireland was muting the edge to the intense rivalry between the Irish teams.
But that has changed now, with Leinster coaches, players and fans no doubt being given extra motivation to give the URC a full go next season after watching their arch-rivals celebrate a triumph that was set up by their win over Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in the Dublin semifinal.
Before the Cape Town final you had to go back to the 2015/2016 season, when Connacht shocked the rugby world by beating Leinster in the Murrayfield final, to when any Irish team other than Leinster had last lifted any meaningful trophy.
That has now changed, and following the fuss made in the Irish media about Munster fans attending the Heineken Champions Cup final at the Aviva dressed as LaRochelle supporters in solidarity with their former flyhalf Ronan O’Gara, who now coaches the victorious French team, the Irish rivalry is spiking. It could be intensified further after a season where Munster, who for so long had been second best, won an important trophy while Leinster ended the season with nothing other than the Irish Shield.
Maybe it didn’t require a Munster win as such for this to be so, but the fact this year saw a proper cross-hemisphere final, as opposed to the all South African event that it was the previous season, should also give extra legs to the competition in the sense that it has started what in time could be a big rivalry between the winners and the team that ended second.
The next time the two finalists meet the memories of what happened in the final and also in the league game a few weeks earlier will still be fresh enough to stir up big interest in the game, which will be at Munster’s home ground of Thomond Park. The Stormers will be reminded then that Munster remains the only URC team they haven’t beaten.
Just as the overseas teams are now starting to become proper identities for South African fans, so it is happening the other way around, with Rowntree showing a lot of respect to the Stormers and to his opposing coach after the final.
“It took a huge effort from us as we were up against a great team led by a really great coach,” said Rowntree, who added that the addition of the South African teams has significantly improved the quality of the competition.
With the Stormers and Ulster rivalry having already started to get intense after last year’s two narrow wins for the Stormers, first in the league game that some considered controversial and then in the semifinal where the Stormers won with a last gasp Manie Libbok conversion, the cross hemisphere rivalry is gaining momentum and was further helped by the Cape Town final.
Speaking of Cape Town, the visiting red army of Munster fans that were thanked by Rowntree and his players after the game were highly enthusiastic about the experience and their outpourings on social media will sell the trip to fans who might consider traveling to South Africa for future games.
With a new hybrid field set to be laid in the offseason to replace the one that attracted negative comment from all sides and turned a dry weather final into a wet weather game, DHL Stadium, with it’s spectacular Table Mountain backdrop, could become a big draw for overseas fans in the same way as Newlands cricket ground attracts English cricket fans in their thousands for the New Year Test matches.
Munster headed home having played six consecutive must win games to secure the trophy, with the start being their two games in South Africa where just making the Championship Cup qualification was top priority. All of those games were away from home and they did it the hard way, thus repeating the fairytale of 2022, when the Stormers won after being given no chance. It was almost the same story, just with a different winner this time.
They are deserved champions but Munster will now have a target on their backs, particularly when they play fellow Irish teams and particularly when they face Leinster.
With several other teams, such as Glasgow Warriors and even Scarlets towards the end of the league phase, fast improving and threatening to be better next year, the competition is going to become harder to win but that will make it more watchable and popular.
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