The United Rugby Championship starts this Friday night as Zebre take on the Lions in the first match of the season. The URC is the rebranding of the Guinness Pro14, which happened in June. This came with new TV deals and a partnership with Jay-Z's Roc Nation. So, here's a guide for what you need to know about the URC.
How is the URC going to work?
The URC is a 16 team competition of team involving teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italian and South Africa, with 18 rounds of fixtures. Teams are split into 4 regional pools (Irish, Welsh, Scottish/Italian and South African) made up of 4 teams. Therefore, a team will play each team in their regional pool twice, home and away. They will then play the other 12 teams once in an even amount of home and away fixtures.
For example: Leinster will play Munster, Ulster and Connacht twice, home and away. They will then play the other 12 teams once, 6 at home and 6 away.
Fixtures are not scheduled during the international windows so more international players will be available to play for their club sides.
There is no conferences in the URC, just a single table. The top 8 teams in the table at the end of the 18 fixtures will enter the play-offs. Quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final will be played to determine the URC champion. The final will be at a different location every year with this year's being at the Aviva Stadium.
How do teams qualify for Europe?
From 2022/23 South African teams will be eligible to play in European competition. The regional pools and regular table will be used to determine which teams qualify. The teams that has the most points in each regional pool will automatically qualify for the Champions Cup. The other 4 teams will be determined by who got the most points in the regular table with the 4 qualified teams removed.
What teams are in the URC?
There will now be 4 teams from South Africa in the competition along with the usual teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy. The complete list of teams are:
- Cardiff Blues
- Glasgow Warriors
- Emirates Lions
- DHL Stormers
- Vodacom Bulls
- Cell C Sharks
How can I watch the URC?
The URC will be available for free on RTÉ and TG4, with both channels providing over 50 live matches including the four Irish provinces. Every game will also be available on Premier Sports in Ireland. The coverage starts on Friday night as you can watch Connacht vs Cardiff Blues on TG4 and Ulster vs Glasgow Warriors on Premier Sports 1. On Saturday Munster vs Sharks will be on RTÉ 2 and Leinster vs Bulls will be on TG4.
URC have also launched URC TV, a streaming service that will show some games for free online. If you pay for the service you can get to watch every single game.
How are the Irish Teams looking?
In the Pro12/Pro 14-era Irish teams dominated, including Leinster winning their fourth title in a row beating Munster 16-6 in March. Likewise they still look strong and each team should be competitive this season.
The defending champions are going for the drive for five this year but have a hole to fill with Scott Fardy retiring. The Aussie played a huge role in Leinster's success over the last few years, especially in games where the Irish international weren't available. Tighthead prop Michael Bent has also retired, being replaced by Samoa International Michael Ala'alatoa. Even with some key players leaving, the conveyor belt of players from the academy is providing high-quality depth in the squad that Leinster will need if they want their fifth title in a row.
Runners-up last season Munster are going through a mini rebuild as such after the shock retirement of CJ Stander. A player of his quality is always hard to replace but Munster have signed South African second/back row Jason Jenkins. Young players in the back row like Gavin Coombes will be first choice and therefore have to try and fill the hole left behind by Stander. However, with one icon in Stander leaving one is returning as Simon Zebo is heading back to Limerick after 3 years in Paris with Racing 92. Zebo is a much more mature player than the one he was during his last spell at Munster and will be one of the team leaders as they look to end the Leinster dominance.
Ulster had a brilliant Pro 14 season last year, having the exact same record as Leinster, winning 14 and losing 2. However, Leinster a much more bonus points and scored nearly 20 more tries than Ulster, getting them into the final. In a way to combat this lack of scoring Ulster have brought in South African World Cup winner Duane Vermeulen who will surely be a handful for defences. With young players like Nathan Doak impressing for the U20s during the last U20s 6 nations, Ulster could soon be knocking on the door to win their first title since 2006.
The last Irish team not called Leinster to win the Pro 14, Connacht have really made big strides in the last decade and are now ready to compete. There has been a lot of exits from Galway, with Quinn Roux moving to France and the retirements of Stephen Fitzgerald and Seán O'Brien due to injury. However, Alex Wootton has joined permanently from Munster and Irish-qualified Australian fullback Mack Hansen have joined Connacht as Andy Friend hopes for his squad to be regulars in the Champions Cup. Connacht also had an impressive bunch of players in the Ireland under 20's squad for the 6 Nations in June. 7 players were in the squad including centre duo Cathal Forde and Shane Jennings. Some of these young players have been given a chance in pre-season and should expect more game time as the season goes on.
The URC kicks off Friday night and we can't wait to see what the new competition can bring.