The Vodacom Bulls’ epic win over Leinster in last season’s semi-final coupled, with the DHL Stormers’ win over Ulster in Cape Town on the same weekend, led to an embarrassing shut-out for the Irish in the final of a competition they dominated in its previous incarnations as the PRO12 and PRO14.

Instead of hosting the Vodacom URC final as they expected to be, the Irish had to watch as the two South African sides battled it out in a different hemisphere and on a different continent for the inaugural trophy.

It is still early days in this Vodacom URC season, but it does appear that the Irish teams are heeding the wake-up call, with Leinster and Ulster firmly ensconced in the top two placings as the first competition block building up to the international break in November nears an end.

And while Munster are lagging some distance behind the other two members of the Irish top three, they too joined in the statement making against South African teams with their win over the Vodacom Bulls.

A lot more will be learned about the respective strengths of the challenge mounted by what are fast emerging as the dominant countries in the Vodacom URC when the Cell C Sharks host Ulster at the weekend, but the Ireland top three have yet to drop a game against South African opposition.

Admittedly the Durbanites were under-strength when they lost 54-34 to Leinster the previous week, but Ulster’s win in Johannesburg was significant in the sense it might have broken down a barrier at altitude, while Munster showed that the message has got through about the need for physicality when you play the Vodacom Bulls, or indeed any South African franchise.

Just as the South African teams learnt quickly and embarked on a steep upward curve on the performance graph after their poor start to the Vodacom URC this time last year, the Irish teams, and indeed some of the other sides if you consider how easily the Glasgow Warriors handled the Bulls the previous week, are adapting quickly to what is needed.

The Vodacom Bulls failed to tame Munster in Limerick.

The Vodacom Bulls failed to tame Munster in Limerick.

There might have been an expectation that Ulster would beat the Emirates Lions in Johannesburg, but doing it in the early afternoon heat at altitude was a significant step forward. And it wasn’t just the South African physicality that Ulster had to face down in order to achieve their win, but also the furious tempo that the hosts injected into their game.

“We played in 33 degree heat, that was tough and very new for us,” said Ulster coach Dan McFarland after a game that saw 10 tries scored by the two teams.

“Sometimes I think the altitude side of things is a little over-hyped, but the heat is very different. The Lions guys are used to that and they play and train in the heat.

“It takes a little bit extra for us to go (in these conditions), but we prepared for it ... I was very proud of he guys. In the end, when the game was loose and we were struggling physically at that stage, we had to pull something out of the bag and we did.”

It was Ulster’s first win in South Africa since they beat the Southern Kings in 2019 in the PRO14, and their first in the country under the Vodacom URC banner. Most significantly, however, it was their first win at altitude, and therein lies a message - as the Irish teams get more used to playing on the highveld, so they will get better at it. In that sense, the Johannesburg game might have been a significant moment not just for Ulster, but for Irish rugby as a whole.

Certainly, as McFarland has explained in previous media interviews, the challenge of playing South African teams regularly can only improve Irish rugby, and the fruits may already have partially been felt in Ireland’s series win in New Zealand as well as the early form shown by the Ireland teams in the Vodacom URC.

While Ulster were blowing air bubbles in Johannesburg on Saturday, their main Irish rivals Leinster were digging deep in inclement conditions in Galway to beat Connacht in a low scoring game. It was a graphic illustration of what makes this competition so interesting - the contrast in the conditions and the playing styles that are required to be successful.

Driving rain was also a feature in the game in Swansea, where the champion DHL Stormers outfit still managed to score a sublime try that was so typical of them even though they were hardly the conditions for running rugby. The game ended in a draw, thus ending the Capetonians’ winning streak, but the visitors should have been happy to get a share of the spoils in that weather and are currently the top South African challenger, lying in third place on the overall log.

Munster weren’t the only team that hit the winning trail again after a sequence of losses at the weekend, as they were joined by Edinburgh, who made the most of their home ground advantage against Benetton. And home ground advantage was also on the side of Cardiff, who warmed up for this weekend’s clash with the DHL Stormers with a comprehensive derby win over the Dragons, as well as Scarlets in Llanelli against Zebre.

Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Ospreys 16 DHL Stormers 16
Connacht 0 Leinster 10
Emirates Lions 37 Ulster 39
Cell C Sharks 40 Glasgow Warriors 12
Scarlets 36 Zebre Parma 12
Cardiff 31 Dragons 14
Edinburgh 53 Benetton 8
Munster 31 Vodacom Bulls 17