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Irish teams know they must raise their game in the URC next season if they want to end South African reign

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The DHL Stormers celebrate winning the United Rugby Championship after beating the Bulls in the all-South African final

The DHL Stormers celebrate winning the United Rugby Championship after beating the Bulls in the all-South African final

©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

The DHL Stormers celebrate winning the United Rugby Championship after beating the Bulls in the all-South African final

With the first ever United Rugby Championship season in the books, the inaugural campaign likely went better than organisers could ever have hoped.

While there were naturally some hiccups along the way, Coivd-19 travel complications chief among them, the sight of a South African side lifting the trophy was one that few would have predicted when the new sides were fumbling along in the early going.

As with any season, there were winners and losers well beyond the 80 minutes of the showpiece final and more than a few questions already ahead of the 2022/23 campaign.

1. Storm brewing

For so much of the season, the DHL Stormers felt like a side going under the radar, even back home in South Africa. With the Vodacom Bulls, led by the high-profile Jake White, able to point to their recent Currie Cup success and the Cell C Sharks, despite some game management issues, boasted such a healthy smattering of frontline Springboks.

The Stormers, meanwhile, went about their business in a manner that often saw them snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

They would repeat the feat on Saturday, sticking in the game despite a wholly indifferent 40 minutes before going on to beat the Bulls in front of 31,000 largely partisan fans.

For a side who have lived dangerously over an undefeated run that now stretches back three months, no more so than in two victories against Ulster, this wasn’t the most dramatic of their victories this year but, needless to say, it was the most important.

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Former Ulster star Marcell Coetzee makes a charge during the Bulls defeat by the Stormers in the URC final

Former Ulster star Marcell Coetzee makes a charge during the Bulls defeat by the Stormers in the URC final

©INPHO/Steve Haag

Former Ulster star Marcell Coetzee makes a charge during the Bulls defeat by the Stormers in the URC final

2. No doubting Dobson

Beating any other challenger three times in a season is a feat in itself but to beat one of their South African rivals in a trio of battles must have been especially sweet for the Stormers and their coach John Dobson.

As he himself noted after their 18-13 success, the financial struggles endured by Western Province led to speculation that they may not even be entered into the URC with the Toyota Cheetahs having been rumoured to take their place.

Modest enough to suggest that such narrow victories through the year are the product of a good slice of luck rather than tactical nous, the largely unheralded Dobson deserves huge credit for guiding his side through what once looked like it was shaping up to be a testing season.

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3. Roos-ing stock

The try that brought the Stormers back into this one was fittingly scored by their young star Evan Roos. Just like his side, he ends the season viewed in a wholly different light to when it began.

Players’ Player of the Season, Fans’ Player of the Season and Next-Gen Player of the Season prizes and number eight in the league’s ‘Dream Team’ that quadruple of accolades, was finished off in perfect fashion with a league winners’ medal too. At only 22-years-old, the former Shark looks set to be a central part of the Springbok side for the foreseeable future ahead of a likely debut for the world champions this summer.

4. Blue Bulls

The Bulls ended their season with a bitter taste in the mouth - certainly Jake White did anyway with a strange post-match – and will no doubt spend quite a while ruminating on what went wrong in the Cape Town Stadium on Saturday in a game they’ll feel they could have easily won.

When the dust settles, though, they’ll feel they are well equipped to succeed in this competition. The first side to beat Leinster in a ‘domestic’ knock-out game since 2017, the power-packed squad have a defined style that feels like it is well suited to success in a league lacking the big beasts of England and France. In Elrigh Louw they have a hugely promising 22-year-old back-row of their own too.

5. Irish absence

Watching the final with no rooting interest will have been a foreign feeling of Irish fans. While both Leinster and Ulster made the semi-finals, with the latter knocking out Munster in the preceding round, the sight of the two South African sides doing battle will have had the greatest impact in the Emerald Isle.

Certainly there were small margins, most notably for Ulster, involved in how the play-offs shook out but it would be folly to think that the introduction of the four franchises, and their successful assimilation over the past six months, will not require a raising of the game if the provinces’ domination of this competition is not to be consigned to a thing of the past.

Leinster will know that, to lose to sides of a largely similar profile in key games over the past three years, means that tweaks are required while Ulster’s progression will likely depend upon the continued development of a cadre of young talent that largely carried them through this campaign.

Connacht next season will need to rid themselves of the frustrating inconsistency that plagued their year this time around and Munster will be looking for a fresh coaching ticket to revitalise a group that flagged badly down the stretch.

6. And the rest?

What of the other runners and riders in the competition? It feels like the gap between the top and the remainder of the league has only stretched.

Glasgow Warriors will have a new coach next season after Danny Wilson was relieved of his duties following their quarter-final humbling at the hands of Leinster and Edinburgh’s strong home record was not enough to avoid a play-off seeding that took them to Cape Town in the last eight.

Benetton, in their first season post-Kieran Crowley, failed to build on their Rainbow Cup success of this time last year and Zebre struggled as mightily as ever to prop up the table.

Feeling most perturbed by their season will be the Welsh regions.

None qualified for the Champions Cup on merit, with Ospreys taking the place of Glasgow on the basis of their strong finish to the campaign. Making up 50 per cent of the bottom half of the table, they remain the league’s most enduring enigma.


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