United Rugby Championship a welcome respite from domestic duels - former Bok No 9

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Neil de Kock scores a try for Saracens in 2016. (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)
Neil de Kock scores a try for Saracens in 2016. (Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images)
  • Former Saracens scrumhalf Neil de Kock, who spent 11 years at the north London-based club, assesses South Africa’s big four franchises entry into the United Rugby Championship.
  • Having played 10 Tests for the Springboks from 2001 to 2003 he explains why competing in the north and Rugby Championship is the “best of both worlds” for South African rugby.

Having played extensively in both the northern and southern hemispheres, Neil de Kock is the ideal man to offer a measured view on the impending introduction of the four South African franchises to the newly-formed United Rugby Championship, which commences in two weeks’ time in the north.

The competition, which is an expansion of the PRO14, is expected to be a baptism of fire for the South Africans franchises who will be without their Springbok stars doing duty in the ongoing Rugby Championship. The Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions will venture to the north first up to tackle the premier teams from Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in an event that runs from September to June.

“Competing in the United Rugby Championship will offer the four South African franchises a welcome respite from domestic duels,” De Kock tells Sport24 in part one of an exclusive interview.  “Ever since Covid-19 struck, South African sides have been forced to play against each other ad nauseam. As such, coming up against European teams will prove a breath of fresh air for our game.”

While talk of joining competition up north was always a debate within South African rugby circles, the pandemic accelerated the decision to expand into new territories. Australia and New Zealand decided to go it alone in Super Rugby before welcoming Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika from 2022.

“Super Rugby as a competition shot itself in the foot too many times in terms of the format, so change was inevitable from a South African point of view,” says De Kock. “Super Rugby, which was the jewel in the crown for many years, lost its allure and credibility because of the need to expand.”

While the South African teams have waved goodbye to Super Rugby, De Kock is excited by northern exposure in the United Rugby Championship being coupled with southern duels in the Rugby Championship.  By all accounts, it will allow South African players to be exposed to different styles.

“Playing against different players throughout the year is novel,” says the ex-Stormers scrumhalf. “It’s a great way to mix things up over the year and is the best of both worlds for South African teams.”

The Bulls’ defeat to Treviso in the Rainbow Cup final sounded an early warning for South African teams not to underestimate the challenge up north. However, De Kock doesn’t believe that the South African franchises will find it too difficult to adapt.  “I can’t say I totally agree with the notion that it will take our franchises a couple of seasons to find their feet in the competition. The conditions are going to be fantastic in the north now for the South African teams as it should be dry, with surfaces firm underfoot. I think the South Africans are really going to revel in playing up north.”

The Cheetahs and Southern Kings formed part of the original PRO14 competition but lost their status when the new tournament was formed. The Cheetahs won 26 of their 56 matches for a win percentage of 46%, while the Kings enjoyed less success over the three years with only four victories.

“I believe South Africa’s big four franchises will be better-equipped to prove competitive in the United Rugby Championship because they have more resources than the Cheetahs and Kings,” notes De Kock, who began his professional playing career with the Griffons in 1999. “However, historically the Cheetahs have always been a team that has been able to perform even though they are under-resourced. They have generally managed to produce performances in spite of being the underdogs.

“I feel for the Cheetahs and think it’s very harsh on them to have been axed from the competition. Given that Super Rugby was swept aside from a local perspective, the Cheetahs are in the wilderness and it’s a bitter pill for them to swallow. I hope a decent competition comes up for them,” he added.

Between the four white lines, De Kock predicts that the Bulls and Sharks are set to be South Africa’s best bet in a global showpiece which is divided into four regional pools and comprised of 18 rounds.

“The Bulls are definitely going to be right up there as South Africa’s flagbearers,” reckons De Kock, who earned 264 caps for Saracens. “They are well-coached and with Jake White at helm, who has been around the block, he knows how to put together a winning team. The Bulls know how they want to play and we have seen that in the local competitions. They will be up there as front-runners but the Sharks will be close on their heels owing to their depth of coaching and playing personnel.”

While the Cheetahs and Kings were ineligible to qualify for European competition during the time they were involved, due to new terms a total of eight sides will qualify for the following season’s European Champions Cup, while the remaining eight teams will play in the European Challenge Cup. 

“The pinnacle for South African teams would be if they performed in the PRO16 and qualified for the European Champions Cup. It’s the ultimate but the United Rugby Championship’s playing standard will be high. From a national perspective, the latter tournament will be an opportunity for Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus to view players and add to their strength in depth,” De Kock concludes.

In part two, De Kock assesses the stern test the South African teams will face from pacesetters such as Leinster in the event and unpacks how player load must be managed over a long season.

Previous interviews:

Stefan Terblanche

Marcelo Bosch

Annelee Murray

Gary Gold

Alan Quinlan

Joe Pietersen

Deon Carstens

Paul Wallace

BJ Botha

Bruce Fordyce

Eddie Andrews

Raymond Rhule

Robert Hunt

Dean Hall

Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg

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