VIDEO: South African teams 'raising the bar' in URC
The inaugural United Rugby Championship has had its share of challenges, but the addition of South African teams raised the bar in a competition that always struggled to find a foothold in the European market.
In its previous guises – as the Welsh-Scottish League, the Celtic League, Pro12 and Pro14 – the URC never really challenged the English Premiership and French Top 14 for a place in the spotlight.
However, Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel believes the additions of South African teams have given the competition the lift that will see it grow into something special.
This past week some people in the Welsh regions questioned the ‘integrity’ of the URC over the staggered nature of the final round league matches.
The battle for the winner of the Welsh conference is a two-horse race between Ospreys and Scarlets – with a place in next season’s European Cup competition up for grabs.
With such high stakes, it is understandable that the Welsh regions would be a bit grumpy over any perceived advantage the other might have.
Ospreys need a bonus-point win against Jake White’s Bulls in Swansea on Friday to guarantee the top spot in the Welsh conference.
However, if the Swansea side fails in their quest, the Scarlets face the Stormers a day later knowing what is required to finish above their Welsh rivals in the URC.
It has caused considerable debate in Wales.
Scarlets coach Dwayne Peel acknowledges that the need for airtime by broadcasters is an important factor.
However, he supports Ospreys coach Toby Booth’s view that the best option would have been for all the games in the final round to kick off at the same time.
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“I have said before, one of our goals is to be top of the Welsh Shield and we have got that to play for this weekend,” said Peel ahead of the clash with the Cape Town-based franchise.
“It is slightly out of our hands with Ospreys playing on Friday, but we have prepped for having to win this game.”
Peel admitted that from an outsider’s point of view, as the weekend unfolds, it will be very exciting to watch.
With just six points separating the teams from second to eighth place and 12 points separating teams from two to 10, the weekend is going to build up to an exciting crescendo.
Leinster is already assured of a home fixture in the quarterfinals, but the five teams behind them will be battling it out for the three remaining spots this weekend.
Munster, the Sharks and the Stormers are all tied on 56 points and have won the same number of matches – while Ulster is a point behind and the Bulls two further back.
With the Sharks and Ulster facing each other in Belfast, wins for any of the sides placed second to fifth would secure them a home quarterfinal.
The Bulls travel to the Ospreys on Friday and will look to put themselves in as strong a position as possible to capitalise should any of the teams above them slip up, with Munster heading to Dublin to face Leinster on Saturday and the Stormers visiting the Scarlets.
“I think it is very exciting,” Peel told @rugby365com, adding: “The competition [organisers] have done a good job this year.
He spoke about the ‘exciting’ brand of rugby and the quality of the competition.
“It bodes well for the future,” he said, adding that the addition of the South African teams has been a great boost for the competition.
“There are the challenges of travelling to [South] Africa,” he said, adding: “The more teams get used to that – similarly to the [South] African sides coming up north – the competition will continue to grow.”
Peel also spoke about the “quality” the South African teams have brought into the URC.
“The South African teams are luring a lot of players back to their franchises.
“The quality of the players are improving and, in turn, the quality of the competition and the rugby will go up as well.”