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RUGBYPASS+ How South Africa has added a cutting edge to rugby in Europe

How South Africa has added a cutting edge to rugby in Europe
1 month ago

The rugby world has been turned on its head. The leading competition in the Northern Hemisphere, at least in terms of results in the primary tournament in which all three of the major leagues participate, is now the United Rugby Championship. ‘Who’d have thunk it?’ as the saying goes.

Nothing looked less likely when English Premiership Rugby and the Top 14 in France took control of the administration and marketing of the two major European competitions (the Champion’s Cup and the Challenge Cup) at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season.

English and French representation in the Champion’s Cup increased to 13 clubs, with a meagre seven slots allocated to the (then) Pro 12 containing clubs or provinces from Ireland, Scotland, Italy and Wales. Unsurprisingly, a situation where clubs from England and France had won 13 out of the first 19 finals between 1996 and 2014 (68 per cent) was transformed, with the new cross-channel alliance providing the champions in seven out of the next eight finals – a 20 per cent jump into the black for England and France.

It seemed inevitable that the two European trophies would become playthings, mere toys for the two biggest and most cash-rich leagues in the north, with their Celtic cousins doomed to look in from an ever more inhospitable landscape, outside the warmth of the Anglo-French hearth.

How wrong that conclusion has proven to be, and the game-changer is South Africa. When the four primary South African franchises switched from Super Rugby in the South to the URC in the North in 2021, it was an historic uprooting from one hemisphere to another. Few realised it at the time, but the new 16-team championship was also primed to become the premier league in Europe.

Boan Venter Cheetahs Edinburgh
The Cheetahs’ and Kings’ additions to the PRO14 eventually paved the way for their ‘big brothers’ to make the switch from Super Rugby to Europe. (Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

As the URC’s chief executive Martin Anayi commented at the beginning of the year, “There’s definitely been a progression. We initially brought in two teams from South Africa [the Cheetahs and the Kings] that weren’t in the big four from that country.

“Our real aim was to bring in the four sides [Sharks, Bulls, Stormers and Lions] that we have got now. Part of that was to get more depth, more competition within the league, so it wasn’t just the domain of an Irish team winning.

“Bringing in the four South African teams has challenged that situation and raised everybody’s game

“There is no question at all they have added to the BKT URC. They won it! The Stormers won our league. They won the first BKT URC, in Cape Town, against the Bulls who had beaten that mighty Leinster side away from home in Dublin in the semi-finals. There was an immediate impact.”

There are still teething problems of course. The dual conference system has yet to inspire anything but confusion among club supporters, and the travel between venues in Europe and South Africa can cause severe logistical issues.

Perhaps the real shock has been that the success of the new competition has translated so directly to the two European tournaments. Anayi again:

“Getting 15 out of 16 teams through to the knockout stages, eight out of eight in the Champions Cup. That’s not easy to do. I am really pleased about that.

“It’s the highest win ratio we’ve ever had in the pool stages. It’s higher than the English Premiership and the Top 14.

“That’s the most pleasing thing, we are getting that depth to the competition and taking that through to the EPCR.”

There are still teething problems of course. The dual conference system has yet to inspire anything but confusion among club supporters, and the travel between venues in Europe and South Africa can cause severe logistical issues. Both the Sharks and the Stormers won their matches decisively in the round-of-16 of the Champions Cup last weekend, but their reward was to travel over 7,500 miles for games in the south of France, and the south-west of England respectively, only seven days later.

South African teams bring a distinct point of difference to play in Europe. Above all else, they bring a huge emphasis on the brutal beauty of defence, both at the breakdown and outside it. It is quite different to play in France, which is still dominated by the set-piece, and the culture of the Gallagher Premiership in England, where the breakdown contest has largely been defanged by the emphasis on clean ball for the attacking side.

URC TV audiences
The Stormers were crowned champions in the inaugural season of the United Rugby Championship in 2022-23. (Photo by Rodger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images)

The South African sides add a concept of destructive defence which is largely unknown to teams in England and France. Harlequins have a reputation as one of the most dangerous attacking sides in the Premiership but up until the 77th minute of their knockout game against the Stormers, only two of their 15 attacking sequences had enjoyed any semblance of a positive outcome.

They only progressed the ball beyond four phases on four occasions, and it took until the 31st minute for their first multi-phase attack of the half to materialise. They lost six turnovers at the breakdown to the efforts of one man alone, Stormers No 6 Deon Fourie, and they were forced to kick the ball away on three of the other occasions when they managed to keep the pill away from him.

Quins scored three quickfire tries in the dying embers to make the score look respectable but they were never really in the contest. As Stormers head coach John Dobson explained in the post-match press conference, “It was absolutely superb. Everything went according to our plans.

“A lot of people will [complain] about the last six minutes but Harlequins have come back and beaten Bristol from 30 points down, they’ve beaten a lot of teams like this.

“The game was well won by then. Our plan was to defend really well which we did. The way we defended, our plan of putting them under pressure at halfback, putting Marcus Smith under a bit of pressure worked.

The rock on which that performance was built was a rabid rush defence.

“I thought we slowed the ball down nicely where Deon [Fourie] and Kitsie [Steven Kitshoff] were outstanding.

“To be 32-7 [ahead] after 76 minutes is pretty special… our first Heineken Cup knockout game against a team of their quality.”

The Sharks were every bit as impressive in their conclusive 50-35 defeat of Irish province Munster in Durban, and once again the rock on which that performance was built was a rabid rush defence. The Sharks’ desire to win the ball back on every phase of Munster attack, and to turn the ball over at every Munster breakdown, was thoroughly unholy and frequently demonic.

It is well worth looking more deeply into how the Sharks defended in that match, and in particular their activity from the backfield and on the wings. Right wing Werner Kok is not well-known outside the Republic, but he is a human dynamo who suits the South African pattern of defence very well indeed:

This is the foundation of the wingman’s job in Durban. He defends as the highest man and chases the attack back inside, in this case chasing centre Antoine Frisch back into the teeth of a winning counter-ruck.

In the process, he often jams in well inside the 15-metre line, which is more often than not considered the inside boundary for a winger:

Kok is jamming in hard on to number 12 Malakai Fekitoa, but he is already back to his usual station on the second phase of attack. That is impressive work rate off the ball. Another example of the same theme occurred on the half-hour mark:

Firstly, Werner Kok is zeroing in on Frisch level with the far post, but when the West Coast province is able to shift the ball further out towards the left side-line, he is magically back in situ to complete the hit on his opposite number Shane Daly 20 metres away – setting up a nice jackaling opportunity for his wing comrade-in-arms Makazole Mapimpi in the process!

Intense work rate from the edge defenders was one of the keys to the Sharks’ kick-chase too:


The long diagonal kick by Curwin Bosch pins Munster back in the corner, but it is the sustained quality of the kick-chase by the outside defenders, number 11 Mapimpi and number 13 Lukhanyo Am which ramps up the aggression to a level the men from Thomond Park cannot handle. Completing the tackle is only the prelude to a vicious fugue, a counter-ruck at which Mapimpi and Am overwhelm the four Munster players in and around the breakdown.

One of the peak moments was duly triggered in the second half, from a Munster scrum:

Werner Kok is again defending two-in on Frisch, but the extra attackers beyond him do not matter. The disruption he causes on the rush forces a loose pass and a breakaway try down the right sideline for Bosch.

The arrival of the four ex-Super Rugby franchises from South Africa has proven to be a game-changer in Europe. It has changed the economic landscape, with the URC now able to command much higher dividends from a variety of broadcast outlets. It has forced even the top attacking outfits from Ireland to become tougher and re-evaluate, to adjust to the more aggressive defensive attitudes in the Republic, to solve new and more difficult problems.

It has provided a new point-of-interest for ‘away’ supporters – “once we had teams going down to South Africa – just follow their [Exeter, Harlequins and Montpellier] social media – they’re having a great time” (Anayi). Above all, it has already created a new equilibrium in European club rugby among the three major leagues, and that can only be for the best. If the Springboks one day join the Six Nations and make it seven, it will be confirmation of quality rather than a rude surprise.


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