South African fans will have been hoping for their sides to have made a much better start to life in the United Rugby Championship.
The Lions of Johannesburg looked set to make a big statement for the incoming South African teams in the URC in their season opener against Zebre, after racing out to a 35-0 lead at half time.
The struggling Italian side fought back admirably in the second half against the Lions however, as the game ended 38-26 in favour of the South Africans, which proved to be a sign of things to come.
The Stormers of Cape Town had stretched their lead over Benetton to 11 points early on in the second half of their opening URC fixture, but the Treviso club managed to fight back to win 22-18, to back up their recent Rainbow Cup triumph against the Bulls.
The Bulls of Pretoria and the Sharks of Durban both proved to be no match for Leinster and Munster respectively, to finish off a poor weekend for the South African sides, in which they lost three of their four games.
Why the South African sides should improve.
While more was expected of the South African sides, particularly the Bulls and the Sharks who have proven to be the top two sides in the country in recent sides, there are reasons to be positive.
There are currently 17 players away on Springboks duty that play for one of South Africa’s URC teams, which unsurprisingly, happen to be some of the best players playing their club rugby in the Rainbow Nation.
The Sharks are the most affected by the Springboks’ current participation in the Rugby Championship, with eight players currently unavailable, such as World Cup-winning stars Siya Kolisi, Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi.
The Bulls, who have proven themselves to be the best side in South Africa in recent times, are only currently without three players due to international duty, but the return of the likes of Morne Steyn and Trevor Nyakane will provide the team with a boost nonetheless.
The Stormers are without six of their best players, with the fearsome Springboks front row of Steven Kitshoff, Frans Malherbe and Bongi Mbonambi soon to return to their club.
The Lions, who are regarded as the weakest of the four sides yet the only South African team who recorded a victory at the weekend, currently have no players in the Springboks squad.
Here’s how things stand after Round 1 📊
— United Rugby Championship (URC) (@URCOfficial) September 27, 2021
The pandemic has caused major disruptions in South Africa.
The South African clubs have endured a whirlwind 18 month since the outbreak of the covid pandemic, having been isolated from the rest of the rugby world for almost the entirety of that time.
The four sides went almost seven months without a competitive match after the 2020 Super Rugby season was cancelled in March, a much lengthier break than clubs in Europe had to endure.
Before the opening weekend of the URC just one game had been played between a South African club and foreign opposition since March 2020 (the Rainbow Cup final between the Bulls and Benetton) and fans have yet to return to matches in the country.
The South African clubs have played in their own domestic tournaments since then, but games have often been cancelled due to covid outbreaks within their squads, and each team has been without their international players for many of those matches.
While the four South African teams may still be off the pace for the next few rounds of the URC, as the weeks go by they should improve, thanks to their returning Springboks stars and their first set of home fixtures scheduled for late November.