It will be recalled that in 2021/22, when what was the PRO14 morphed into the 16 team cross-hemisphere Vodacom URC, the South African sides started poorly and were struggling at the halfway point.
But with all of them having clusters of successive home games in the second half of the season, the local sides rallied to the point that the eventual winners, the DHL Stormers, and the Vodacom Bulls and the Hollywoodbets Sharks all made it into the top five.
The Durbanites are struggling so it is unlikely they will make it that high, but the Emirates Lions could well join the teams from Pretoria and Cape Town in the bracket for Investec Champions Cup qualification and a place in the URC play-offs that comes with a top eight finish. That’s because most of the teams currently ahead of the SA teams on the log still have to come to this country for their two match tours, something that history reflects is not easy for any foreign team.
And looking at the Vodacom URC log as a whole, there’s every reason to believe the remaining months of the competition will be vibrant, absorbing and tense as teams jockey for a place in the top eight as well as the top four spots that offer an all-important home advantage in the knock-outs.
That should get the eyes drawn to a competition that broke another crowd attendance record this past weekend, with the 26 000 that pitched at Loftus to watch the Vodacom Bulls win an exciting close game against the Emirates Lions pushing the aggregate ninth round attendance to 146 046.
The Pretoria game was of course postponed from the New Year weekend, which was when the ninth round was played. So add the 26 000 that were at Loftus to the 37 000 that watched the DHL Stormers beat the Hollywoodbets Sharks by a solitary point in Cape Town on 30 December and you get to 63 000 and you can see how much South Africa’s inclusion contributes to the competition.
With more than 30 000 watching the return 1872 derby between the two Scottish teams, Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors, the week before, it was inevitable that once this round was concluded the attendance would eclipse the previous record, which was set the week before in the Christmas derbies.
It should catch on even more in the remaining nine rounds, for the log at the halfway mark points to the probability of a proper bun fight at the sharp end of the league season, both for playoff spots and home advantage.
Due to their unexpected loss in round nine to Ulster, the threat of Leinster running away with top position on the log has been averted for now. It was their second defeat, so the Dublin team are not as dominant as in seasons past, and are only two points ahead of the surprise package so far, the Italian team Benetton.
The third placed Glasgow Warriors and the fourth placed Vodacom Bulls are within four points of the lead, and Ulster, Edinburgh, the DHL Stormers and the Ospreys are all within two wins of pole position. Connacht, the Emirates Lions and Munster all fall outside of the top eight bracket currently, but are within 10 log points of the top dogs, and just one point off Champions Cup and playoff qualification.
It is still too early to be certain of anything, but while Munster have been in this situation before – they were in a worse position this time last season and ended up winning the Vodacom URC – the Emirates Lions should be fancying themselves to break into the playoff bracket. The DHL Stormers too can feel good about their chances of making it into the top four for a third successive year.
That’s because the overseas teams ahead of them all have to come to South Africa between now and the end of the season, while some of them, and this is Ulster and Edinburgh in particular, will be making their trips at a stage of the season where there will be doubt about the availability of their international players due to the Six Nations.
Edinburgh and Ulster come to South Africa in the second half of March to play the DHL Stormers and the Sharks in Cape Town and Durban. The KwaZulu-Natalians have some improving to do admittedly, but both those teams should be hard to beat on their home fields.
Leinster have the Vodacom Bulls at home but will be playing the DHL Stormers and Emirates Lions away, neither of which games will be easy, while Benetton have to travel too, and the Italians don’t boast a good record in South Africa.
Munster beat the Hollywoodbets Sharks and the DHL Stormers on their home field of Thomond Park early in the competition but will be heading to the highveld and altitude later in the competition. And ditto Franco Smith’s high-flying Glasgow Warriors, who have to go to Pretoria and Johannesburg.
There is a three week break from the Vodacom URC now because of the Six Nations but it will resume on the weekend of 16/17/18 February, and in addition to the local derbies between the Sharks and Stormers and the Lions and the Bulls, there are some other games that could have a big impact on the log - including the top two clash between home team Leinster and Benetton.
Vodacom URC Top 12 positions at the halfway mark:
1. Leinster 34 points
2. Benetton 32 points
3. Glasgow Warriors 31 points
4. Vodacom Bulls 30 points
5. Ulster 28 points
6. Edinburgh 26 points
7. DHL Stormers 26 points
8. Ospreys 25 points
Current play-off and Champions Cup cut-off
9. Connacht 24 points
10. Emirates Lions 24 points
11. Munster 24 points
12. Cardiff Rugby 21 points
Round 10 fixtures (SA times)
Friday 16 February
21h35: Zebre v Edinburgh
21h35: Scarlets v Munster
Saturday 17 February
15h00: Emirates Lions v Vodacom Bulls
17h00: Leinster v Benetton
17h05: Hollywoodbets Sharks v DHL Stormers
19h15: Cardiff v Connacht
21h35: Glasgow Warriors v Dragons
Sunday 18 February
17h00: Ospreys v Ulster