The South African domination reflected by having two teams in the final and three in the top five in the inaugural season of the Vodacom URC can still happen in this edition of the competition. We are seeing similar results now to the 2021/22 season, where the local sides also started off on the road and were languishing when the sixth game, signifying the point where the season is a third of the way to being finished, came into view.
This weekend will be round six and it will kick off with Leinster having recovered well from their opening defeat to Glasgow Warriors to be top of the log, ahead of the Warriors only on points difference. It is early days, but at this point the two teams at the top are arguably playing the best rugby and look set to be the sides that the rest will be chasing for the rest of the season.
Of course, last season’s runners up in the league, Ulster, will have a say in that, and they are just two points adrift, while Connacht would have got a lot out of their hard fought and gutsy win over the Hollywoodbets Sharks in Durban. If anything proves you can win just about anywhere, that result does, and Connacht, after dropping points to Edinburgh the previous week, are back in the top four, level with Ulster on log points (18) and two behind Leinster and Glasgow (20).
The other Scottish team, Edinburgh, is also starting to show signs of being an awakening giant under the coaching of former Sharks mentor Sean Everitt, who presided over what for him would have been a significant win over the Vodacom Bulls, who he worked for over a six month period last season, at the weekend.
Edinburgh are fifth, on 17 points, but just three behind the leaders and one behind the third and fourth placed teams, and level with the reigning champions, who won a hard fought repeat of last season’s final against the DHL Stormers in Cape Town, albeit this time at a drenched Thomond Park. It was Munster’s fourth win over the Capetonians in four starts and they are becoming a bit of a bogey team for the inaugural champions.
The Edinburgh success has dropped the Vodacom Bulls, who went into the fifth round in pole position, into seventh, although Jake White’s men, no doubt smarting from a loss that was heavily impacted by the red card shown to their co-captain Marcell Coetzee, will be confident that a run of home games at their formidable fortress, Loftus Versfeld, should get them back near the top.
For now though, if you look at it in terms of the various Shield participants, it is the Irish and Scotland/Italy groups that dominate the top eight which this season signifies both play-off qualification and qualification into next season's Investec Champions Cup.
Benneton lost their first game at the weekend but they were the only unbeaten team before then and are putting up a creditable showing in the early stages of the competition, with a win over the DHL Stormers and a draw with Munster among their achievements. Unfortunately for them they were well beaten by Glasgow at the weekend, but they will not be disheartened.
And speaking of Italy, the resurgence in that country’s rugby, which was perhaps telegraphed by the Italy Under-20 team’s good performance in the last World Rugby U20 Championship, continued with Zebre’s draw with Cardiff. Following on as it does from their drought breaking triumph over the Hollywoodbets Sharks the week before, the result enables Zebre to lift to 11th on the table, a feat that would not have been foreseen in the past few seasons where they hogged bottom place from start to finish.
The KwaZulu-Natalians own bottom place at the moment and their coach John Plumtree won’t be happy with five losses from five starts, one of those now being at home after the one point reverse to Connacht, but they did show in Durban that there is flesh to be put to the bones of all the talk of a changed game from the Durban-based team.
Certainly it does seem a long time since the Hollywoodbets Sharks last had such tempo and attacking shape to their game and Plumtree should be taken seriously when he says a turn-around is a long way away.
For them though surely they will already have consigned themselves to the reality that if they are to get Vodacom URC silverware this season it will have to be done the hard way, meaning qualifying as one of the bottom four teams in the top eight.
There’s a massive gap now between the Hollywoodbets Sharks and the top four (16 points) and an even bigger one opened up by Leinster and the Warriors, with the former having posted a 50 pointer against Scarlets to complete the turnaround from their uncharacteristic false note start to their 2023/24 Vodacom URC campaign.
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship results
Edinburgh 31 Vodacom Bulls 23
Ulster 24 Emirates Lions 17
Zebre 22 Cardiff Rugby 22
Hollywoodbets Sharks 12 Connacht 13
Dragons 20 Ospreys 5
Munster 10 DHL Stormers 3
Glasgow Warriors 26 Benetton 12
Leinster 54 Scarlets 5