The PRO14 Rainbow Cup, which concludes with the decider between Benetton and the Vodacom Bulls in Treviso, Italy on Saturday evening, is the forerunner to the PRO16, which is where the top four South African franchises - the Vodacom Bulls, DHL Stormers, Cell C Sharks and Emirates Lions - will be heading from September.
The Rainbow Cup has provided exciting games both sides of the equator, with this final weekend being no exception if you look at the 28-all draw played out by Scarlets and Edinburgh on the last day of league competition. But ultimately the Rainbow Cup is just an appetiser for what is to come, with Benetton being helped in their passage to the final by the shortness of the competition and the fact they didn’t play against any of the PRO14’s regular top three.
Benetton’s victims before the COVID-related cancellation of their scheduled final game against Ospreys in Bridgend, thus being awarded four log points by the forfeiture, were Glasgow Warriors, Zebre twice and Connacht.
They did not play Leinster, who have won the PRO14 for three successive years and are considered the dominant force in the competition and the side that the likes of the Vodacom Bulls will have to beat going forward if they want to see PRO16 silverware.
Munster and Ulster, who are the two other Irish provinces both rated higher than Connacht, also weren’t on the Benetton menu in the Rainbow Cup.
Leinster’s campaign was compromised by their big defeat at the hands of Munster on the opening weekend of the Rainbow Cup when they were focusing on the following week’s Champions Cup semi-final clash with La Rochelle. They also lost one other game as they used the competition to test their depth.
But in their final game of the season, with spectators allowed back into their home ground of RDS Arena in Dublin for the first time since the pandemic started, they sent out a reminder of their championship status with a typically thorough 38-7 dismantling of the Dragons.
The PRO14 champions scored six tries to one and were superior in all aspects of the game as they rounded off a season which for them was a bit of a Curate’s egg. In the sense it was good in parts, meaning the retention of their PRO14 title, but bad in others, meaning their failure to reclaim the Champions Cup title that they won three seasons ago.
All the final round games - there were supposed to be four of them - were rendered moot from the viewpoint of who would play in the Treviso final by the cancellation of Benetton’s game against the Ospreys. Who would have won that match? We will never know. But what Munster will know is that they would have been in the decider had it not been for their unexpected slip against Connacht.
Johann van Graan’s team rounded off their campaign with a sound thrashing of Zebre in Parma and in doing so they joined Leinster in sending out a reminder of the challenges that await the South African teams from September.
At the same time, the European teams in the PRO16 should all be watching Saturday’s final with interest as it will be a gauge of what they can anticipate from the South African challenge next season.
The Vodacom Bulls should start as favourites even though they are playing on Benetton’s home ground, but they will carry the weight of heavy expectation into the game as the resurgent Pretoria franchise look to cross another frontier by adding an international title to the ones they’ve won in South Africa since the end of lockdown.
Jake White's team showed the composure and ability to win the big points that has critics labelling them the team with championship qualities in their clinical decimation of the Cell C Sharks in Durban, with the other match on South African soil scheduled for the last weekend of league play - the DHL Stormers v Emirates Lions in Cape Town - having been cancelled because of COVID protocols.
In a game that wasn’t too dissimilar in its flow to the men’s French Open tennis final played at Roland Garros the next day, the Cell C Sharks challenged strongly initially but were worn down by the Vodacom Bulls, who became progressively more dominant and effectively sealed the home team’s fate, and Monday night's flight to Italy, when they made sure of their own bonus point with a 60th minute try.
On their current form, the Vodacom Bulls should be confident that they will clinch the first silverware thatis on offer in what will become known as South African rugby’s PRO16 era.
PRO14 Rainbow Cup SA
Cell C Sharks 22 Vodacom Bulls 34
Guinness PRO14 Rainbow Cup
Zebre 11 Munster 54
Leinster 38 Dragons 7
Scarlets 28 Edinburgh 28