SINCE the creation of the United Rugby Championship was announced in June, the organisers have been keen to stress its novelty and excitement value. And in an important sense, they are entirely justified in doing so: the addition of the four South African sides will not only introduce a new nation to the tournament, the quality of the players in those sides should also ensure a higher level of competition than ever before.
But as well as being bigger and hopefully better than its immediate predecessor the PRO14, the URC is also just the latest stage in the curious and wholly unpredictable evolution of a competition whose very modest beginning was as the Welsh-Scottish League in 1999. So, as we look forward to the start of this campaign on Friday, when Glasgow take on Ulster in one of three first-round fixtures, it is worth asking: is this the culmination of that evolution, the final step from caterpillar to butterfly, or just the latest but by no means last change in a sport which, quarter of a century on from the beginning of its professional era, has yet to settle down into a solid sustainable structure?
Are the South Africans here to stay? Will their inclusion have knock-on effects elsewhere, such as making it more likely that the Springboks eventually join up with the Six Nations? Or will this new 16-team set-up prove too awkward to sustain in the longer term?
Certainly, there has always been a Frankensteinian element to the tournament in its various guises. Born of necessity back in 1999 when Glasgow and Edinburgh were in desperate need of opponents and looked to Wales to find them, it remains a cobbling-together of various body parts that have no obvious organic connection.
Look at a map and it is easy to see why Scotland, Ireland and Wales might agree to band together in competition. But Italy? And now South Africa?
The initial switch, from Welsh-Scottish League to Celtic League, made perfect sense. It never felt right for two teams, each supposedly representing half of Scotland, to play against Welsh clubs who in many cases only represented minor towns. So when Wales opted to establish regional teams, the competition was levelled up to the benefit of both countries, with the SRU responding by reviving the Border Reivers.
The subsequent inclusion of the Irish provinces also made sense, bringing the numbers up to a more workable level. With the best will in the world, however, it cannot be said that the Italian teams, who first took part in 2010, added value in anything like the same way. Similarly, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, the first South African teams to join back in 2017, were little more than makeweights.
The addition of the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers is certainly a vast improvement on that first, abortive attempt at South African involvement. But it can still be said that a competition which began in the late 1990s as a marriage of convenience rather than a uniting of natural bedfellows has continued in the same vein with the arrival of those four sides. Their involvement, far from making the URC appear a more natural blend of teams than its predecessors, has left it looking more than ever like an unwieldy beast with more limbs than brains.
After being essentially a British and Irish competition for long enough, the URC now looks like it has been put together under the sort of rules that allow Uefa to decide that Europe includes Kazakhstan and Israel, or that let the Eurovision Song Contest embrace Australia as a member. And it could come to look all the odder as the years go by, because, even if and when we have put Covid regulations behind us, flying about all over the place will not suddenly seem all right again. For as long as the climate crisis continues – and I’d wager that will be a century or two at the very least – the notion of expanding global travel merely to play a few sports fixtures will seem selfish and counter-productive to many.
On the credit side, South Africa is just an hour or two ahead of GMT according to the time of year, so that is a good fit for the four new teams – certainly when compared with the body-clock confusion involved in travelling to Australia or New Zealand. In the final analysis, though, and notwithstanding any ecological reasons, the success or failure of the URC will primarily be judged according to the quality of the games. And right now there is every reason to believe that it will be markedly higher than before.
It may take a year or two to settle down, but we should not be tempted to rush to judgement in any case. After so many name changes and alterations in format since its humble beginnings, what the URC needs above all is a period of stability.
This is almost certainly not the last change it will undergo, to return to those questions we posed at the start. But it should allow itself several years to bed in before being tempted into further alterations.
The South Africans have every intention of staying, and the happier their four teams are with the tournament, the more likely it will be that the Springboks begin to militate for involvement in the Six Nations. But that is for a few years’ hence. Right now we can only hope that, starting on Friday, this new competition, warts and all, will be good enough for us to take to our hearts.