United Rugby Championship: A giant leap for South African rugby

Imagine a European Champions Cup quarter-final lineup spread across two continents. The Bulls collide with Leinster beneath an African sunset at Loftus Versfeld. The Sharks host Racing 92 in the unforgiving humidity at Kings Park, while the Stormers travel to a wet and windy Sandy Park to challenge the Exeter Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Lions get more than they bargained for when they battle Toulouse in front of thousands of partisan French fans.

It won’t be long before these dream match-ups – which have been hypothetical for much of the professional era – play out on the famous grounds of Europe and South Africa. The Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers have the green light to participate in an expanded 16-team tournament that will feature other top clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. Come September, these teams will take the first step of what should be a game-changing journey.

It’s no secret that the franchises, the Springboks and SA Rugby itself are viewing the United Rugby Championship (URC) as a springboard to greater opportunities and ultimately a greater financial return in the northern hemisphere.

In the very same release explaining the format and structure of the URC, SA Rugby pointed out that the local teams competing in the URC would in effect be competing for a spot in the prestigious Champions Cup – the world’s premier club competition.

At least one team, namely the top-ranked South Africa side at the conclusion of the 2021/22 URC, will advance to the 2022/23 Champions Cup. The teams that don’t progress to the Champions Cup will compete in the second-tier European showpiece, the Challenge Cup.

Both European tournaments feature teams from the cash-flush English Premiership and the French Top 14.

Although the Champions Cup is the pinnacle, the second-tier Challenge Cup is highly competitive and showcases some of the biggest names in rugby.

Montpellier – who have World Cup-winners Handré Pollard and Cobus Reinach on their books – won the recent instalment when they defeated a Leicester side stacked with South Africans as well as a global superstar in former Crusaders and Fiji wing Nemani Nadolo.

DM168 understands that there will be further changes to the rugby landscape at the end of the current World Cup cycle. Come 2024, the South African teams could feature in a Club World Cup that includes the best teams from Europe as well as the best sides from the southern hemisphere – such as the cream of the crop in the Australasian competitions.

Consider that for a moment. Another dream clash between the Crusaders, the winner of Super Rugby Aotearoa in 2021, and Exeter Chiefs – Premiership and European Cup champions in 2020 – may well come to pass.

Furthermore, there may be an opportunity for the Boks to join the Six Nations, although at this stage it’s unclear whether the South Africans will replace perennial battlers Italy or whether they will join an expanded seven-team tournament. It’s certainly a move that will benefit South African rugby more than the established northern teams, who will be forced to make an 11-hour flight south for the first time in the competition’s history.

“We’re going north for all sorts of reasons,” Stormers coach John Dobson said. “There is a financial incentive.

“The [URC] is not the final destination for us and it shouldn’t be long before we are part of the Champions Cup. We want to see the big teams playing here in South Africa – that’s what is going to fill the stadiums. That’s the kind of product that the powers that be are after.”

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