While all four SA sides head north for games against Vodacom URC opposition this weekend, upon their return they will go into a phase of the competition where they will host several encounters against overseas teams as they look to finally get some cross-continental action that was denied in December because of the outbreak of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Some of the fixtures have been rescheduled from the two weeks in December, while others are regularly scheduled games. Either way, it gives the teams a decent run of home games to look forward to and if, as expected, they do well, their positions in the log are bound to rise and give the playoff race some extra spice.
The opening tours weren’t a success for the South African teams but there is a sense now, knowing what they are to face in Europe that the teams are better prepared and there is a a sense of excited anticipation among local players and coaches. The feeling is that playing in South African conditions is an opportunity to rack up a string of victories.
One coach who sees this happening is South African-born Van Graan, who told Irish media this week that the log will be determined by what teams do in South Africa and that the local teams will very much have a say in the outcomes of the first URC season.
“Everyone has still to go down there, and it is going to be a massive challenge for the teams from the northern hemisphere to learn what it takes to play at Loftus and Ellis Park and Cape Town Stadium and in Durban. That is a massive challenge,” said Van Graan, a former Springbok assistant coach.
First though, the South African sides need to negotiate the one-off games against foreign opposition, and with Leinster hosting the Emirates Lions and the Vodacom Bulls facing Zebre Parma on Friday night, with the Cell C Sharks taking on Benetton and the DHL Stormers facing Connacht on Saturday, there are some mouth-watering games happening.
While they are widely expected to be favourites at the RDS Arena, where they easily dispatched Ospreys last weekend, Leinster coach Leo Cullen is preparing for an abrasive assault by the Emirates Lions forwards.
“It was important to get a bonus point over the Ospreys in this sequence of matches,” Cullen said after his side’s win over the Welsh side.
“The Lions are very big and physical and abrasive around the contact area. We have done our homework on them so we know there are plenty of threats.
“Leinster must make sure we recover well after the Ospreys game even though it is a short turnaround. We must put in a good week’s training.”
Either way the end of the derbies and the arrival of cross-border games will be welcomed all round.
And in the end, the playoffs will be determined by games in the Republic, and the four South African teams’ response to the arrival of the attempted invasion of their home turf.