The great experiment of the United Rugby Championship (URC) begins next weekend, the unknown being how it will turn out in terms of providing entertaining and competitive matches.
The Bulls losing to Italy's Benetton in the Rainbow Cup final was an arresting pause on rising optimism and while it was a flawed competition from beginning to end, it has cast doubt on just how effectively the four South African franchises - the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions - will deal with the travel, weather and style of rugby in Europe.
This week, though, Ireland and Leinster centre, Garry Ringrose had an upbeat view.
“Certainly, when they get it right South African teams can be incredibly difficult to beat and the teams that are joining now are most definitely bringing a stronger level than what we played against in the past,” he said. “Then they build out from the set piece and are incredibly strong from international to the club game. They have athletes out on the wider channels that I would be exposed to a bit more that could leave you for dead pace-wise.”
The South African sides have been drawing in players and coaching staff who have spent time in Europe from former Ulster scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar on loan with the Sharks to former Montpellier hooker Bismarck du Plessis with the Bulls.
An Irish coaching duo at the Sharks, Noel McNamara and John McFarland seems like another gesture designed to import rugby intelligence on just how to counter the Welsh, Scottish, Italian and Irish teams.
Why? Because clubs travelling from the Northern Hemisphere will play two back-to-back away games in South Africa each season, while the South African sides will play six away games in the Northern Hemisphere.
The four teams will be missing an array of their international players, who are still playing in the Rugby Championship involving South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina, which is due to end on October 2nd.
After that they will pick up the pieces of who is fit and who needs to rest as the sides face into an Irish winter of rugby, the November International Series another speed bump.
But organisers have recognised top names are a draw and a URC clash with the Test window has been avoided with matches suspended between the end of October to end of November.
“I don’t think I’d ever describe any South African team as being an easier one having studied them on film,” said Ringrose. “But the Bulls have been incredible. Maybe the narrative around the way South African teams is put to bed a little bit by the Bulls when you look at their past five or six results and they are close to 40-50 points a game.”
Fans will know quickly how it will shape up. The first weekend has Leinster playing the Bulls in Dublin and Munster facing the Sharks in Thomond Park.
World Cup winning coach with the Springboks, Jake White, could not have been more effusive about his Bulls team when they beat a toothless Sharks side in the recent Currie Cup final. "Close to perfect," said White. He will be hoping they remain that way when they face Leinster on the opening weekend of the United Rugby Championship (URC).
Prior to that, the franchise had finalised a canny signing with the acquisition of 37-year-old Springbok hooker, Bismarck du Plessis. The 2007 World Cup-winner with 79 Tests to his name joins the Bulls from as Springbok Duane Vermeulen packs his bags for Ulster.
Du Plessis teams up with a select band of other players familiar to Irish eyes. Loose forward Arno Botha, formerly of Munster, is in the squad along with the dynamic former Ulster backrow Marcel Coetzee. A tough loss to the Irish side Coetzee was the 2020-21 joint top try-scorer (nine) and the 2020-21 Pro14 Players' Player of the Season in his final months with the province.
The Rainbow Cup final defeat by Italian side Benetton in April is still a result people are trying to fathom. The side that failed to win a single match in the regular Pro14 season stunning the South African champions leaves White with some rebranding to conduct. Benetton only made it to the final after they were awarded the four match points on account of their game against Ospreys being cancelled due to positive Covid-19 cases in the Welsh squad.
The Bulls were also without their four Springboks, forwards Trevor Nyakane, Johan Grobbelaar and Vermeulen and outhalf Morne Steyne. Leinster will point out that they played large chunks of the season without their international players. The Bulls are based in Pretoria and play in the 50,000 plus capacity Loftus Versfeld Stadium.
The Currie Cup was both promising and disappointing for a developing Sharks side that performed well in the early pool stages of the season and ultimately finished in the top two with the Bulls, losing 44-10 in the final.
Earlier this month the Sharks and Cheetahs announced a cooperation agreement for the exchange of players and to support each other on a broader front. From the perspective of the franchises, the agreement benefits the sides in terms of their squad strength and financially.
It's also seen to be in the broader interests of South African rugby. The move allows both teams to make some of their players available to each other on request and when competitions don't overlap. To that end Cheetahs scrumhalves Ruan Pienaar and Tian Meyer will join the Sharks on short-term deals. Meyer will be available for the URC outbound tour and will then return.
With Springbok selection and injury ruling out three of the Sharks scrumhalves, Pienaar will be involved for a longer period with his invaluable experience and knowledge of the Irish playing conditions hugely beneficial to the side, who play Munster in their opening game.
Sharks players including Thomas du Toit, Ox Nche, Siya Kolisi, Jaden Hendrikse, Lukhanyo Am, Makazole Mapimpi, Sbu Nkosi and Aphelele Fassi were all selected for the 2021 Rugby Championship Springbok squad.
Their squad has 12 new names coming in including Joaquin Diaz Bonilla, an Argentinean outhalf from Leicester Tigers who has played four times for his country. Former Leinster Academy manager, Noel McNamara is the attack coach and Belfast born John McFarland the defence coach under Sean Everitt.
The franchise is based in Durban in KwaZulu Natal Province and play in the 55,000 capacity Jonsson Kings Park Stadium, known locally as 'The Shark Tank.' The ground is also used to stage soccer matches.
Hit hard by players moving, the Stormers have welcomed the arrival of loose forwards Junior Pokomela and Willie Engelbrecht, while scrumhalf Stefan Ungerer has also joined on loan ahead of the URC. Pokomela and Ungerer both bring experience of playing in the Pro14, while Engelbrecht was with the Stormers for the Rainbow Cup earlier this year.
The athletic Pokomela is a former SA Schools and Junior Springbok, who has played for the Toyota Cheetahs for the last four years, while Engelbrecht joins from the New Nation Pumas and Ungerer from the Tafel Lager Griquas.
They join a Stormers squad that has six players in the current Springbok squad but still have gaps in what will be an arduous season. The most obvious holes have been left by the departures of the likes of Siya Kolisi, Juarno Augustus, Jaco Coetzee and also Pieter-Steph du Toit, who apart from being a Springbok announced he will continue his career in Japan.
The team is probably missing a quality outhalf and there is a sense that the squad is being cobbled together with the late announcements of arriving players.
Critics say there was an over-reliance on Tim Swiel during the Currie Cup once it was announced Abner van Reenen was going to play in Italy. Kade Wolhuter is promising but still a young player and has been out injured for most of the year.
Last year the team was split on whether they wanted to play in Europe or not before the divorce came through from New Zealand and Australia.
Centred in the Cape Town region, they play in the 55,000 capacity Cape Town Stadium and are coached by John Dobson, who is also the author of two novels 'The Year of the Gherkin' in 2012 and 'The Year of the Turnip' in 2016.
When the Super Rugby was cancelled in 2020 because of Covid, the Lions were sitting last in the South African Conference and 13th overall, with one win and five losses. They had a -91 point points difference (PF: 109, PA: 200), and had five match points in total.
In recent days they have added two more players. Griquas centre Christopher Hollis and Pumas scrumhalf Ginter Smuts have both joined them on loan. They are the latest players to join the Johannesburg team after four Pumas players joined the franchise last week.
Eddie Fouche will give the Lions some added depth in the outhalf position. He will be joined in Jo'burg by his Pumas captain and lock Pieter Jansen van Vuren. Prop Morgan Naude and centre Matt More were the other two Pumas players to sign up
Springboks Ross Cronje (ankle surgery) and Willem Alberts (hamstring rehabilitation) were not considered for selection, so too talented playmaker Gianni Lombard (ankle injury). All three however form part of the greater URC squad and will be available for selection once fully recovered.
The Johannesburg based side, who released a 33-man touring squad earlier this week, will have the honour of playing the first match of the newly-minted tournament when they face Italian side Zebre next week in the earliest scheduled game.
Coached by Ivan van Rooyen, the Lions recently added three former Springbok players to the coaching team, 2007 World Cup winner Albert Van den Berg takes a position as forwards and lineouts coach, Ricardo Loubscher a 15s and 7's international will look after the backline, attack and skills and Jaque Fourie, who played in three World Cups and won it in 2007 is the defence coach. The Lions play their home games in The Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg.