United Rugby Championship welcome respite from national duels – former Bok No 9
Neil de Kock scores a try for the Saracens in 2016 (Photo by Alex Morton / Getty Images)
- Former Saracens scrum-half Neil de Kock, who spent 11 years at the north London-based club, assesses the entry of South Africa’s four big franchises into the United Rugby Championship.
- After playing 10 tests for the Springboks from 2001 to 2003, he explains why competing in the north and the rugby championship is the “best of both worlds” for South African rugby.
Having played extensively in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, Neil de Kock is the perfect man to offer a measured perspective on the imminent introduction of the four South African franchises into the all-new United Rugby Championship, which kicks off in two weeks in the North.
The competition, which is an extension of PRO14, is set to be a baptism of fire for South African franchises who will be without their Springbok stars in the current rugby championship. The Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions will first venture north to face top teams from Italy, Ireland, Scotland and Wales in an event that runs from September through June .
“Participation in the United Rugby Championship will provide the four South African franchises with a welcome respite from national duels,” said De Kock. Sport24 in the first part of an exclusive interview. “Since Covid-19 struck, South African teams have been forced to play against each other to satiety. As such, playing against European teams will be a breath of fresh air for our game. ”
While the talk of joining the competition in the north has always been a debate within South African rugby circles, the pandemic has accelerated the decision to expand into new territories. Australia and New Zealand have decided to go it alone in Super Rugby before welcoming Fidjian Drua and Moana Pasifika from 2022.
“Super Rugby as a competition has too often shot itself in the foot in terms of format, so the change was inevitable from a South African perspective,” said De Kock. “Super Rugby, which has been the jewel in the crown for many years, has lost its appeal and credibility due to the need to grow.”
As the South African teams bid farewell to Super Rugby, De Kock is excited about the northern exposure to the United Rugby Championship coupled with southern duels at the Rugby Championship. By all accounts, this will allow South African players to be exposed to different styles.
“Playing against different players throughout the year is new,” said the former Stormers scrum-half. “It’s a great way to mix things up during the year and it’s the best of both worlds for South African teams.”
The Bulls’ loss to Treviso in the Rainbow Cup final sounded an early warning for South African teams not to underestimate the challenge in the north. However, De Kock doesn’t think South African franchises will have too much trouble adjusting. “I can’t say that I totally agree with the idea that it will take our franchises a few seasons to find their feet in the competition. Conditions are going to be fantastic in the north now for the South African teams as it should be dry with firm surfaces underfoot. I think South Africans are going to really enjoy playing in the north. “
The Cheetahs and Southern Kings were part of the original PRO14 competition but lost their status when the new tournament was formed. The Cheetahs have won 26 of their 56 games for a 46% winning percentage, while the Kings have been less successful in the three years with just four wins.
“I think the four big franchises in South Africa will be better equipped to compete in the United Rugby Championship because they have more resources than the Cheetahs and Kings,” notes De Kock, who started his career as a professional player. with the Griffins in 1999. “However, historically the Cheetahs have always been a capable team despite being under-resourced. They have generally been successful in producing performances despite being the underdogs.
“I feel sorry for the Cheetahs and I think it’s really hard for them to be knocked out of the competition. Since Super Rugby has been swept away from a local perspective, the Cheetahs are in the wild and that’s a bitter pill to swallow. I hope that a decent competition will present itself for them, ”he added.
Between the four white lines, De Kock predicts that the Bulls and Sharks should be South Africa’s best bet in a global showpiece that is split into four regional pools and made up of 18 rounds.
“The Bulls will definitely be the flagship of South Africa,” said De Kock, who won 264 caps for the Saracens. “They’re well trained and with Jake White at the helm, who’s been around the block, he knows how to build a winning team. The Bulls know how they want to play and we’ve seen it in local competitions. They will be up there in the lead, but the Sharks will be on their heels because of the depth of their training and their playing staff. ”
While the Cheetahs and Kings were not eligible to qualify for European competition during the period they were involved, due to new terms, a total of eight teams will advance to the European Champions Cup for the season. next, while the remaining eight teams will play in the European Challenge Cup. .
“The pinnacle for the South African teams would be that they play in the PRO16 and qualify for the European Champions Cup. This is the ultimate, but the level of play of the United Rugby Championship will be high. From a national point of view, this last tournament will be an opportunity for Jacques Nienaber and Rassie Erasmus to see the players and add to their strength in depth, ”concludes De Kock.
In the second part, De Kock assesses the severe test that South African teams will face from leaders like Leinster during the event and explains how the player load is to be handled over a long season.
Nicolaas Janse van Rensburg