Ulster’s domestic competition has undergone a fourth revamp in 20 years as we welcome the DHL Stormers, Cell-C Sharks, Vodacom Bulls and Emirates Lions into the newly formed Ultimate Rugby Championship.
The big changes include one league table instead of the two conferences of the PRO14 while the spots for the Champions Cup will not be decided on merit, with one team from each regional pool guaranteed a spot in the competition the following season regardless of where they finish in the final league table.
One league table will see the top eight qualify for the expanded play offs which will see a quarter final round played before the semi finals and final.
While there’s only one league table, the teams are split into country pools of four for the fixture draw as well as European qualification. The Italian and Scottish sides are combined for the final pool.
Each team will play 18 games – nine home and nine away. Ulster will play their interprovincial sides home and away, while will play the rest of the league either home or away. None of these fixtures will be played on international weekends unless the international match is outside the test window.
The top team of each pool automatically qualifies for next season’s European Cup with the remaining four spots being awarded to the highest ranked teams in the league table.
The FRU Reaction.
While the branding and logos are incredibly strong, the name is weak as the league joins a crowded market of ‘Rugby Championships’. It’s too similar to the international compeitition in the southern hemisphere but is still an upgrade after PRO>insert number here< ran past its sell by date once the four South African teams were confirmed.
Although I would have preferred fewer test matches (never going to happen) to ensure that the international players are available for all of the domestic campaign rather than fewer regular season matches, the league’s choice to keep international weekends free is a positive.
A mixture of this and the return to free to air tv (for most of the matches involving the provinces) will boost TV viewership and hopefully recapture the casual fan who’s drifted since BBC lost the coverage four seasons ago. It doesn’t solve everything though, with league matches still being scheduled on the weekends before and after international matches so there will be rounds where Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale, Rob Herring etc will be unavailable.
Now it’s down to the IRFU to allow the provinces to go fully loaded against each other in the Christmas and New Year derbies. It could also be a boost to the AIL as smaller provincial squads as a result of COVID will allow more players to return to their clubs.
I’m not convinced by the geographical qualification for the Champions Cup. Although unlikely (I can’t see the Scots having a worse season than this year) it leaves the opportunity open for a team to reach the play offs – and possibly go on to win the tournament – to miss out on qualification for the next season’s Champions Cup. Unless there is an escape clause to cover that.
The season gets underway in September and has renewed excitement after a year where a pandemic has been at the forefront of our minds. Roll on the new season.