Last year the URC was given a face lift. Previously known as the Guinness Pro 14, the competition featured professional teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. The Cheetahs and Kings briefly joined in after Super Rugby exclusion, but were then later omitted.
Interest was fairly limited, I would be lying if I said that there was much interest personally away from Super Rugby. Not for long though.
After dipping its toe in the South African waters a few years ago, the URC have gone the whole hog, and the league is now home to the four South African rugby heavyweights. The DHL Stormers, The Cell C Sharks, The Vodacom Bulls and The Emirates Lions.
The result has seen the URC see some record viewing numbers. The novelty of new match ups, stadiums and fresh rivalries caught the imagination of fans.1.25 million viewers watched the final between the DHL Stormers and the Vodacom Bulls. Those numbers were unheard of in previous years.
I think it's fair to say that rugby in South Africa needed a shake up. We were all tired of watching the Bulls play the Sharks 6 times a year in a plethora of local derbies in a format nobody could understand. Super Rugby might as well be on Mars now, and we can finally watch our teams play at reasonable times.
Having played in both Super Rugby and the URC It might be useful to point out a few differences between the two. Super Rugby is high tempo, high action. Fast surfaces and for the majority of the time, favourable conditions.
Playing in the Northern Hemisphere, brute strength, defence and tactical prowess tends to be a leveler of sorts. Not to mention the freezing cold and sideways rain which brings in the risk quantum. Teams over there are more meticulous in their planning and approach, where we are more inclined to back players' intuition and instinct.
The resources in the North are also significantly larger. I remember when playing for Edinburgh and there were more cameramen filming our sessions than we had physios at the Stormers.
The culture clashes made for some enjoyable viewing. I think we quickly gained respect for some of the talent in the North. The likes of Leinster and Ulster are world class outfits in any league, and other seemingly lesser known clubs proved that they can topple anyone in front of their home fans.
This season has been a much happier start for the South African teams. After 5 weeks the log is encouraging, but with an important run of games on the horizon before European Cups and the end of year tour let's look how things match up for our South African Teams
Last year's champs are unbeaten so far and they will be licking their lips as they look ahead to their remaining matches on tour against Cardiff, They finish off this block of games with the Lions at Ellis Park. It is a run of games they shouldn't be troubled with, with Ospreys in Swansea already behind them, arguably being the toughest opponent in what has previously been dubbed the UK’s wettest city.
The Stormers have shown some great balance in their play, blending some real flair in the backline with some honest work upfront. Everyone will be after them this year and they have built some depth in key positions which should do them well over periods without the likes of Kitshoff and co.
I think it's fair to say the least disrupted in terms of squad continuity. Despite only losing 2 games, they have had a shaky last 2 weeks. They saw their second loss in as many games against an out of form Munster team. A fiery Thomond Park is not an easy place to win.
After Munster, they head to Italy to Play Benetton - A side they lost to 35-8 the last time they played and then head home for a scrap with the Sharks at Loftus. Crunch time for the men from Pretoria.
P.S. The post match Tiramasu at Benneton game is the best i have ever had.
By far the most low key squad on paper, which suits them just fine. They have been gutsy and smart and come off a cracking tour winning all 3 games on the road. They've now returned to JHB for 3 home games on the trott.
Their first, against Ulster, saw the Johannesburg outfit suffer their first defeat of the season. Glasgow Warriors and the DHL Stormers will visit in the following weeks.
It's hard to place the Lions. Whether they have the squad to compete consistently is still up for debate, but they will back themselves at home and once a few fall there and confidence builds, who knows? You won't have to look too far back to see what a written off Lions squad can produce.
Not entirely convinced they are where they want to be. Won by a whisker against the Dragons and took points against a strong Leinster team at the RDS. The Sharks however, returned home to a wealth of fresh Springboks which now includes newly signed Eben Etzebeth. Expect to see Kolisi, Etzebeth, Mapimpi, Nche etc. all featured over the course of the next few weeks.
They face a confident Ulster team on Saturday. Followed by Ospreys and then a tough trip to Joburg to play the Lions.
The biggest challenge for them will be how well they can integrate as a team. Will they introduce the superstars all at once , or drip feed them into the European Challenge weeks?
Nic Groom is a former South African Rugby Union player. He played scrum-half for the Cape Town based Western Province and the Stormers, representing the Cape side over 126 times. His time in Cape Town saw him win 2 Currie Cups and a Vodacom Cup and in 2015 he was selected for the Springbok incoming tour squad vs Ireland. He later signed for English Premiership side Northampton Saints and played 50 games for the East Midlands Club. After a thrilling 11 year career, which saw him represent the Barbarians, South Africa 'A', the Lions and Edinburgh Rugby, he finished playing at London Irish. Nic has played 229 professional rugby games.