Every moment matters in frantic conclusion as URC finally promises to deliver decent punchline

Leinster backs coach Felipe Contepomi (left) and head coach Leo Cullen at the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

David Kelly

Whisper it quietly but the United Rugby Championship (URC) might just become the most entertaining acronym since Monty Python were hungrily looking for something other than SPAM.

But much more than a laughing stock. At the very least, it promises to deliver a decent punchline rather than merely being the butt of a familiar joke.

Differing priorities from competing nations have prompted predominantly public indifference down the years – aside from spirited zealots – with only occasional fairytales like Connacht’s inviting a wider interest in fare that did little to sate the passions of general sport fans.

The oft-derided league fare, originally a Celtic design to fill the boots of the professional pioneers of the early century, has had more facelifts than the cast of Made In Chelsea. And was just as unwatchable.

Like most things, the pandemic plunged the competition into chaotic crisis, spawning the club equivalent of the despised Autumn Nations Cup.

Benetton were the first and last winners of a Rainbow Cup parading not so much primary colours but lifeless grey.

Enter the Springboks; yet even South Africans seemed to be barely enamoured when their franchises were steadily added to the ever-changing troupe.

Not everyone else was happy either; Connacht were moaning before a ball was kicked while Munster were trapped amidst a real-life health crisis when they were confined by Covid.

The cancellation of the one truly momentous clash of the campaign, the St Stephen’s Day tussle in Limerick that fell foul of a wedding, seemed to confirm the whole thing was a busted flush.

The Welsh and Scots stumbled along as always, mostly with conventional mediocrity, while the Italians remained good for a hiding.

The South Africans, who had purportedly never experienced a raindrop or a slight breeze in their existence, were initially blown away by the northern exposure to inclement weather while also remaining restricted by Covid.

For long stretches of a campaign, rendered even more incomprehensible by league tables that only those in possession of a doctoral thesis could navigate, it seemed impossible to relate to what was happening in the league.

Apart from the obvious, of course. Leinster, as always, being on top.

However, amidst the shadow of the Six Nations – and the pervasive threat, or promise, depending on your outlook, of South Africa joining the Six Nations – the narrative of the league swiftly gained some dramatic traction.

As the South Africans impressively completed their games in hand at home, where once it seemed they might have to play on European soil, they have suddenly upset the usual cosy cartel atop the league.

“It is like the South African media is waking up late for this and the same for their teams in the competition,” notes SuperSport pundit and former Munster and Springbok centre Jean de Villiers.

“The South Africans were disappointing at the beginning but it was off the back of a Lions series, we were still in Covid bubbles and half-empty stadia,” adds Premier Sports pundit Jim Hamilton.

“We were all wondering what is this? They did get a couple of wins but it wasn’t what we thought it would be.

“And it felt like we were playing for the sake of playing. I don’t think they got a fair shot. And even then it seemed like they might have to play their home matches in Europe.

“But now we know what this league is all about. We can’t judge it entirely yet but we have seen the evolution of this tournament.”

And now, with just three regular rounds of action remaining, potential or peril awaits the Irish provinces.

Leinster are set fair, which is why they are drafting in a second-string squad for their double date in South Africa; a home quarter-final and semi-final await them.

Connacht, in stark contrast, know only three bonus-point wins might keep alive their desperate twin ambitions of qualifying for the play-offs and remaining in the Champions Cup next season, and hence they have brought all their big guns south.

The four winners of the individual ‘shield’ groupings automatically qualify for Champions Cup fare, with the four remaining slots given to the remaining best-placed teams.

For the pair remaining at home, the stakes are just as high, as Ulster and Munster clash this Friday in Belfast; both are likely to retain their front-liners with each eyeing a home path to a June 18 final, potentially being held on South African soil.

With a clutch of sides – Scarlets (9th) and Stormers (5th) – separated by just nine points, every moment matters.