The Rainbow Cup takes on a different form than previously expected, with confirmation on Wednesday morning that the South African franchises will not be heading up north.
Wednesday saw the confirmation of the expected pull-out from the 'away leg' of the competition, with the Pro14 confirming that two separate competitions will be running over a period of seven weeks. This has no affect on the Pro16 which is set to get underway later in the year and will see South Africa join the competition officially.
While it will be some time before the provinces face off against the franchises, these parallel Rainbow Cup competitions give Irish fans the opportunity to scout their South African counterparts, particularly ahead of the British & Irish Lions tour.
Although OTB Sports have introduced the different South African teams to Irish audiences over the past number of weeks, what has not been clear up until now has been just how similar the South African franchises are to the four provinces.
The Bulls are the South African Leinster
Leinster have been the dominant Irish province over the last decade, winning the last four Pro14 titles, and maintaining a very strong winning record.
While the Bulls have not enjoyed the overwhelming success that Leinster have, they are still the most successful team to come out of South Africa.
They are the only SA team to win Super Rugby and have been dominant in the two tournaments held in South Africa since the start of COVID-19.
While both sides are the most likely from their countries to win their respective Rainbow Cup competitions, their overall performances are not the only similarities to find between the two blue teams.
Both sides benefit from the experience and ability of an ageing out half that is still in the form of their careers, in Jonathan Sexton and Morné Steyn.
Like the 35-year-old Sexton, a 36-year-old Steyn has been in superb form in recent months and has been putting his hand up for Springbok selection as the form flyhalf in the country.
Similarly, Sexton is still the first choice for Ireland and is likely to run out for the Lions later this year, likely against a Springbok side with Steyn in it.
Finally, both Leinster and the Bulls have become known as talent factories over the years, with graduates of their respective academies featuring in every other team in their respective countries.
Munster can find their counterpart in the Sharks
Largely seen as the second-best team in Ireland for the last four years, Munster have been the bridesmaids to Leinster’s bride.
Similarly, the Sharks have firmly secured their place as the second best South African franchise, both historically, and based on recent form.
While the Sharks have beaten the Bulls recently, in March this year in fact, prior to that, the Bulls have had the run of their coastal opponents for the past two years.
Munster fans will not need to be reminded that Leinster have enjoyed similar dominance over the western province, winning their previous seven encounters.
However, again it is in their players that the greatest similarities are seen. Both Munster and the Sharks have a young, talented flyhalf largely considered to be the next international star.
Both Curwin Bosch and Joey Carbery have represented their country, they are both exciting with ball in hand and off the tee, and they are both 25 or under.
Additionally, Munster and the Sharks share a fondness for World Cup-winning centres, as the Springbok pairing of Damian de Allende and Lukhanyo Am are respective starters for the two teams.
Lastly, both the Durbanites and the westerners have a powerful tight five, with national representatives peppered throughout, and a desire to spread the ball wide to their exciting backline.
The Stormers bare striking similarity to Ulster
The comparison between losing a powerful loose forward under difficult circumstances are clear between Ulster and the Stormers.
Both sides have lost one of their talismanic loose forwards to teams that they will be coming up against in the Rainbow Cup.
It was announced late last year that Marcell Coetzee would be leaving the province, despite the frustration of their CEO. Coetzee’s departure came earlier than expected though, as he is set to meet up with the Bulls before his contract expires.
While not strictly as questionable a situation as the Coetzee exit, Siya Kolisi’s departure from Cape Town due to a difficult financial situation a the Stormers will be equally as frustrating for their fans.
However, the two sides’ run of form is also very similar, with their overall performances making them the third most likely sides from their countries to win their parallel Rainbow Cup competitions..
Ulster have consistently come up short against the likes of Leinster, but have found form against Munster in recent meet-ups, beating them in January this year, and even coming close to winning their conference.
Similarly, the Stormers have a long way to go before they can consistently front up against the Bulls, however their recent victories over the Lions and their close encounters with the Sharks paint them as a rising team not unlike Ulster.
Connacht and the Lions on the same path
Finally, perhaps the most underrated two teams from their respective countries, the Lions and Connacht are similar in a number of ways.
Both sides are well known for a desire to throw the ball around and create space out wide, even if the weather in Galway does not always permit Connacht to do so.
Similarly, both Connacht and the Lions have a home ground with a reputation of being particularly difficult for teams to travel to.
The Lions’ Ellis Park stadium is situated at altitude in the highveld, meaning that teams from sea-level cities often run out of gas before the end of the match, allowing the hosts to outpace their visitors in the dying minutes.
Connacht’s Sportsground, on the other hand, is famous for its difficult winds and wet weather almost year round, making it a particularly difficult place in which to travel.
Despite being regarded as the fourth best teams in their respective jurisdictions, both the Lions and Connacht have recently tasted huge success as well, albeit not being in the best form currently.
The Lions went to three consecutive finals in Super Rugby from 2016-2018 and were the most dominant team throughout the competition for those three years, although they came up short in all three finals.
Similarly, Connacht’s Pro14 victory in 2016 is the pinnacle of their performances over the last decade, and they are due another run of form.
Confirmation of the South African Rainbow Cup series is expected to made soon, however the Irish provinces are set to kick off their local derbies on Friday April 23rd.
Team of Us. Everyone In.
Vodafone. The main sponsor of the Irish Rugby Team