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Gordon D’Arcy: URC finally kicks into gear with lots of drama

After a slow burn, newest recruits from South Africa are making their presence felt

The fanfare which greeted the news that South African franchises would join the newly minted United Rugby Championship (URC) was uniform in the expectation that it represented a coup for the tournament. It's been a slow burn in terms of impact, but there is evidence that it's changing and when the business end of the tournament arrives, South Africa will have representation.

Covid-19, winter rugby in the northern hemisphere and missing Springboks all contributed to a soft opening for the tournament’s newest recruits as they struggled to make their presence felt on their travels before returning home and playing a series of South African-based derbies.

The elements – heat and altitude – have been significant factors recently as clubs make the reverse journey, in the same way that the Stormers squad arrived in the Sportsground many moons ago dressed as Arctic explorers, shivering in the cold.

It’s been interesting to watch the teams try to cope with the diverse challenges. As all bar Edinburgh have found, outplaying the South African teams in their backyard is an infinitely tougher prospect, the upshot of which is that the competition has taken on an appearance for which the organisers would have hoped initially: fully loaded teams properly representing the quality and talent in squads.

The arrival of URC champions Leinster to Thomond Park on Saturday is a fixture that quickens the pulse for players, coaches, supporters and the tournament organisers

The URC was supposed to be largely conducted outside the international Test match windows and, while the pandemic forced a fixture reshuffle, there are glimpses of what the tournament will be when there is scope to pursue the original format.

South Africa will be represented in the URC playoffs and, if that's accompanied by home advantage, a team or teams could go deep into knockout stages. Winning the URC is still a possibility for all of the Irish provinces, although Connacht are fast approaching the stage where their chances fall into the realms of mathematical permutations. Winning all of their remaining games given the fixture schedule is a long shot to put it mildly.

Sharp focus

The return of the Heineken Champions Cup is 10 days away, bringing into sharp focus games that will define a season. The two-leg round of 16, home and away matches, leaves very little room for performance aberrations. It whets the appetite for those weekends.

I was commentating on Munster's victory over Benetton last weekend and was struck by the energy that the Italian side brought, perhaps a legacy from the national team's victory over Wales in the final round of matches in the Six Nations Championship. Munster navigated a tougher encounter than the final scoreline suggested, forced to kick points to accumulate a definitive advantage before pulling away in the final quarter of the game. It was an intelligent appraisal of what was required to guarantee the win.

The arrival of URC champions Leinster to Thomond Park on Saturday is a fixture that quickens the pulse for players, coaches, supporters and the tournament organisers. Munster's need is greater in looking at the table, but their opponents certainly won't be apathetic to the outcome. Both teams are engaged on two fronts, tournaments wise, and in that respect the next three weekends are pivotal.

Tom Daly's moment of madness overshadowed what could have been an opportunity for Connacht to sow doubt ahead of the European games between the provinces

The return of the hugely influential Damian De Allende and the first real sighting of his fellow South African Jason Jenkins will have the Munster collective in chipper form going into the game. There is widespread appeal to the individual duels with the context of the game – Jonathan Sexton against Joey Carbery, Jamison Gibson-Park against Conor Murray and Jack Conan against Gavin Coombes to highlight three.

Every player will have skin in the game on a personal level for one reason or another. Munster’s need is arguably greater as the pack pursuing those at the top of the table have begun to close that gap. Leinster can still lose and re-gather for another shot but it’s not a mindset they’ll accommodate.

Strong spine

Leo Cullen will tinker to a certain degree while retaining a strong spine that will start two of the next three matches. There was little to be learned in last weekend's win over Connacht, other than that the visitors were ruthlessly patient.

Tom Daly's moment of madness overshadowed what could have been an opportunity for Connacht to sow doubt ahead of the European games between the provinces. It is genuinely hard to get my head around what he intended when he shaped to make the tackle on Ciaran Frawley. There is an obvious desire to make a big hit, and, fuelled by adrenaline and the emotion of the occasion, that can be a dangerous cocktail, where technique is compromised by a lack of control. It was reckless rather than malicious but it still begs the question as to why players adopt that upright posture, when they know the consequences of being a fraction off in the collision.

What is going to change player behaviour? That is the kernel of the problem that World Rugby faces. The short answer is the length of suspension. If the sanctions do not change then I don’t believe the technique will change either.

Daly, much like Charlie Ewels, will get a two- or three-week ban. Until weeks turn to months, I believe World Rugby are talking out of both sides of their mouth. It’s not about making Daly a scapegoat in this instance. He shouldn’t be punished more than anyone else in the circumstances, but in an overall context, the timeframe for those that transgress has to be long enough to act as a deterrent.

In the context of the game itself Connacht were gutsy in forging a half-time lead but it always looked precarious. Leinster struggled to work out how to maximise the benefit of the extra man until the coaching group recalibrated the patterns before sending them out for the second half.

In times past the players would have been able to figure this out for themselves but it’s been a while since that was the case.

Leadership

The value of the overseas players in the Irish system has been twofold: one to provide leadership when the internationals were missing and the other to add a little extra when the team was fully stocked. Isa Nacewa played these roles beautifully, providing leadership for young players but also capable of taking a game by the scruff of the neck and giving the team direction – something that was palpably lacking at the Sportsground.

Imagine the development of players such as Jamie Osborne and the O'Briens, James and Tommy, if they were playing alongside and learning from Damian de Allende for example. It appears that Charlie Ngatai is slated to play the role of mentor to the younger group but is unlikely to start a fixture when there is a full roster from which to choose. Jason Jenkins, when he makes the short trip to Dublin from Limerick, and Ngatai will be expected to provide that pastoral care and example next season, and you could see the former All Black being an ideal tutor foil for Frawley and Osborne, accelerating their development.

This stage of the season has typically been where Ulster have slipped up in the past, showing all the credentials to be a cup-winning team, only to come a cropper

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland had every reason to be seething about Callum Reid's late disallowed try, an outrageous decision belatedly recognised and acknowledged as such, albeit there isn't much consolation in tangible terms.

A more thorough examination would also suggest that they should not have been scrambling as badly so late in the game. Ulster have a pretty tough fixture schedule as they take on the Bulls at altitude in Pretoria this weekend and then face back-to-back European matches against the reigning champions Toulouse before returning to the URC and games against Munster and an in-form Edinburgh.

This stage of the season has typically been where Ulster have slipped up in the past, playing exciting rugby, showing all the credentials to be a cup-winning team until the knockout stages, only to come a cropper.

They have gotten so close on several occasions but I feel that it is more difficult to win the URC with the arrival of the South African teams. Winning the Pro14 used to be about beating Leinster for the most part but now it is substantially more challenging.

Matches like last weekend’s defeat to the Stormers once again serve as a lesson for Ulster. They were denied a perfectly legitimate victory with a poor officiating decision but they had plenty of other chances to secure a win that would not have left them susceptible to a quirk of fate. Defeat carries a much greater tariff at this time of the season and that ought to be reflected in the performances of the four provinces on the pitch. Leinster have the most breathing space in terms of points banked. Connacht can’t afford another defeat, while one of Munster or Ulster may yet deal a fatal blow to the other when they meet in a few weeks time.

Whatever transpires, the URC has finally and dramatically kicked into gear.

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