- The Sharks know they are in for a major test of their credentials when they take on Munster on Saturday.
- This is the first round of fixtures in the new-look United Rugby Championship.
- All four South African sides will be in action over the weekend.
South African rugby’s steady move to European competition ramps up a notch this weekend with the United Rugby Championship kicking off.
All four South African franchises will be in action, and all are playing away from home.
On Friday, the Lions take on Italy’s Zebre (18:35, SA time) before an action-packed Saturday sees the Stormers take on Benetton (14:00), Leinster host the Bulls (18:15) and then the Sharks travel to Johann van Graan’s Munster (20:35).
The new-look tournament will see 16 teams from South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy compete over 18 rounds of action, with the top eight sides qualifying for the quarter-finals.
With South Africa’s franchises having last played international opposition in early 2020 when Super Rugby was prematurely scrapped as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the last two seasons have seen them play internally in products like the Currie Cup and Super Rugby Unlocked.
Now, with a new competition to look forward to, South Africa’s teams will be tested in a way they haven’t been before.
While northern hemisphere conditions will be one obvious adjustment, the opposition is the other.
Sides like Munster and Ulster will certainly provide different threats to the Crusaders and Hurricanes, while assistant coach Noel McNamara also says that the Sharks will have to adapt to the different styles of officiating they will experience in the URC.
“It’s an interesting challenge and we’ve got some new law interpretations coming in too, with the 50/22 and goal-line dropout which adds its own intrigue,” he said.
“From what I’ve seen, the standard of refereeing in South Africa has been good. There is a real intent to contest in South Africa. Everything is a proper contest … at maul, scrum, ruck, restart … I think that mindset will be brought up here.
“There will be a certain amount of adapting to the referee. There are different referees from different countries up here, so I think it will be about the team that adapts best.
“On any given day, every game starts on zero and the referee might have a slightly different take on things. It’s ultimately about our ability to show good pictures.
“We want to be positive as a team and play the game in the right way, and ultimately it’s about adapting to the referee.”
Turning his attention to Munster, McNamara was under no illusions.
The Irishman coached his country’s U20 side from 2018 to 2020 and has also worked with Leinster, so the Sharks have a coach in their ranks who intimately understands the threats posed by the northern hemisphere franchises.
“Obviously Munster have been very successful over the last couple of years,” McNamara said.
“They’ve been very consistent and they’re a momentum team. When they get the momentum, they’re very difficult to stop.
“They’re going to present a lot of challenges for us and there is no doubt about that, but the overriding feeling is one of excitement and looking forward to that challenge.
“The best players are motivated by challenges and nobody came up here thinking this was going to be easy.”
Welshman Craig Evans will referee Saturday’s match.