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URC's sleeping giants showing signs of waking up

SPOTLIGHT: The recently completed United Rugby Championship regular season had everyone rapt and at the edge of their seats in the closing stages, but the battle the teams face chasing their specific goals is likely to become even tougher going forward.

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There has been considerable growth across the teams competing in the cross-hemisphere competition over the space of the last three seasons, and with the coaches and players now getting more used to the travel and the different conditions, a further upward trend on the performance graphs can be anticipated.

There are young teams that are showing signs of further growth, with the three South African teams that challenged for top eight spots this year in that number.

And then there are the sleeping giants, the Sharks, who have been showing signs of waking up and could be strong challengers for a top-four spot next year.

The old saying that it is tough at the top is certainly starting to apply at the top end of the URC. After three seasons, the trend has been set and the teams have become used to the different battle fronts that make the competition so interesting.

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There were 12 teams in the running for top eight spots, meaning Champions Cup and URC play-off qualification, and thus still in the running for URC silverware until a late stage of the season.

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Indeed, in the last round, it was the 11th-ranked team, the Ospreys, who had been overlooked by so many pundits as their route into the play-offs looked so difficult to attain, that snuck in ahead of Edinburgh, the Lions and Connacht.

But just as important as play-off and Champions Cup qualification is for some teams, so the need to get into the top four is becoming an absolute imperative for those with silverware aspirations.

Being a cross-hemisphere competition, home-ground advantage can make a massive difference to your chances of advancing through the first play-off games. More so than in other competitions.

It isn’t nigh impossible like it was when South African teams got to deal with the massive challenge faced by jetlag on the journey from north to south in the days this country played in the Super Rugby competition and had Australia or New Zealand as potential travel destinations in the play-offs.

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Munster showed when they came to Cape Town last year and beat the Stormers in the Final.

The Stormers, although they eventually lost by 17 points, were in the fight against Glasgow in their quarterfinal at the Scotstoun last weekend until the closing minutes.

But missing out on the top four does put you on the back foot, and Stormers coach John Dobson, faced with a scenario where his team had to do it the hard way after playing six successive home play-off games in the first two years, said that the “threat” that a home team perceives in a play-off is transitioned into “opportunity” when you play away.

In other words, the expectation becomes less, you know you are going in as the underdogs.

After missing out on top-four qualification for the first time, Dobson’s team will be desperate next season to restore what in the first two seasons was starting to become the status quo.

The higher you finish on the log the better off you are in the Finals Series, with the top two guaranteed a home semi if they get through their quarterfinal.

The Stormers finished second in the first year, which was why they hosted the final when the top-finishing team, Leinster, got knocked out.

The next season the Stormers were squeezed into third by the previous team’s third-placed finisher, Ulster, and they had to rely on other results to secure their home final.

This season both of the two teams that along with Leinster were in the top four in both seasons of the URC missed out. Ulster finished sixth to the Stormers’ fifth.

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Having gone through the pains of a change of coach in mid-season, Ulster started to improve later in their campaign and should be expected to be more organised next year.

That could relate into a stronger challenge, and the same can be said for the Stormers, who will feel like they learned a lot from the misfire on their November tour that set them back and left them needing to win almost every game from then on to make the top four.

The Stormers actually only lost twice after returning at the end of November – away against the Bulls and at home to the Ospreys – but it still wasn’t enough to close the gap on the top four.

But while the Stormers and Ulster will be hopeful they can get back into that top bracket, there are other teams that are either improving rapidly, such as the Lions, or just have too many big names on their team sheet to continue to be also-rans, meaning specifically the Sharks.

With Munster and Glasgow having become top dogs, and the Sharks surely set to fire, battle for top four places is red hot and wrought with jeopardy going forward.

The Sharks had to secure their place in the Champions Cup by winning the EPCR Challenge Cup, but they won’t have that avenue open to them next season.

Their coach John Plumtree has already spoken about the need to be much better in the URC, and it is hard to imagine that his team can be as poor again.

Given the way Italian rugby appears to be on the rise and rise, it would also not be surprising were Benetton to start honing their sights on a top-four finish. Even though they lost, they gave a good indication in the quarterfinal against the Bulls what they are capable of.

When it comes to top eight qualification, those who heard URC Chief Executive Martin Anayi speak about the potential for growth in Wales, where there are mainly young squads and rebuilding projects underway, will be understandably wary that the Ospreys might not be the only Welsh team challenging next season.

The last-placed Zebre pushing Glasgow away in their last league game was a reminder that no opponent in the URC can be underestimated, and that amounts to jeopardy across the board, which makes for a great competition.

So looking into the crystal ball, it is highly likely that the intensity we saw in the closing weeks of 2023/24 will be matched and maybe even exceeded, and over a more sustained period of time, in the seasons ahead.

In this episode of Walk the Talk, Jim Hamilton chats with double World Cup winner Damian de Allende about all things Springbok rugby, including RWC2023 and the upcoming Ireland series. Watch now for free on RugbyPass TV

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