United Rugby Championship must deliver competitive edge to be successful

Published Categorised as 2021-22, Editorial, United Rugby Championship Tagged

It has finally arrived. The United Rugby Championship. Pitted ‘bigger, bolder, stronger’ than anything we have seen before, the new cross hemisphere competition kicks us into a new era of rugby.

Richard Mulligan Reports

It is not exactly unique. South African clubs have already competed against the best from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy – but this is a bit different in that it is the big four Super Rugby sides from the southern hemisphere union who will bring the challenge.

When it was first confirmed the Bulls, Sharks, Stormers and Lions would be coming in to the PR014 competition, there was massive excitement – and rightly so. The best of South African rugby were coming and ready to make their presence felt.

Sadly, the Covid pandemic put the halt on a curtain raiser to the main performance, when the end of season Rainbow Cup fixtures were curtailed, meaning there were no cross hemisphere battles in the pool stages of the one-off tournament.

However, there was a final played in Italy and while there was no surprise the Vodafone Blue Bulls won through from South Africa, there was shock in the Northern Hemisphere when Benetton, who lost every game in the league campaign previous, secured their place in the final.

And when they stunned everyone by thumping the Bulls in the final, eyebrows were raised and some began to wonder was this a sign of things to come in the new look United Rugby Championship.

This new competition is the last throw of the dice for the organisers. What has gone from the Celtic League to the Magners League, and then onto the PRO12, with the addition of the Italians, and then the PRO14 (when the Cheetahs and Southern Kings came in from South Africa) and now to the URC, it is the last chance of seeking a really competitive league before thoughts turn to perhaps the forming of a British & Irish League.

The cross-hemisphere event has to be competitive and there is perhaps the danger that it will be dominated by the Irish and South Africans.

Leinster winning the last four championships has not been a great look for the organisers and if we are really honest last season’s competition was lacking a competitive edge as compared to both the English Premiership and French Top14.

Leinster are of course favourites to make it five in a row even with the arrival of the South African challenge, led by the Bulls and Sharks and already the Bookies are saying three of the four Irish Provinces, Munster and Ulster, will finish in the next two spots in the URC.

One additional feature of the URC which will help make it slightly more competitive are the Shield competitions which in Ireland is akin to having the old inter-provincial championship back in operation.

For the tournament to be a success it does not necessarily mean someone other than Leinster should win it, but rather competitive games between each of the Union’s clubs.

That means the Scottish and Welsh will have to turn up and offer much more than they have in recent years.

The opening round of fixtures is headlined by the meeting of Leinster and the Bulls in Dublin and Munster and Sharks in Limerick. The outcome of both could set the standard. However, it is already skewed in that the visiting South Africans are missing a host of their international stars who played New Zealand earlier in the day in the Rugby Championship.

However, that should not take away too much from the meeting of the powerhouses in both hemispheres and it certainly is a great way to get a new competition up and running.

The other ties of particular interest will be Zebre against Lions – two of the teams expected to be battling it out for bottom spot – and Benetton and Stormers, two clubs hoping to make their mark by getting into the top eight for the play-offs.

As for Ulster, a home tie in front of 15,000 fans at Kingspan Stadium against Glasgow Warriors is the perfect way to set the tone for the season. It is a game they must win, being at home, even if the league is 18 rounds long. To challenge Leinster and others likely to be in the running, Ulster will have to enjoy a run like last year and even then winning 16 matches was not good enough to make the final.

Enjoy the first round – I am certainly looking forward to it.

UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP ROUND 1 FIXTURES

Fri, 24 Sep17:35ZebrevLionsStadio Sergio Lanfranchi
Fri, 24 Sep19:35UlstervGlasgow WarriorsKingspan Stadium
Fri, 24 Sep19:35CardiffvConnachtCardiff Arms Park
Sat, 25 Sep13:00BenettonvStormersStadio Comunale di Monigo
Sat, 25 Sep17:15LeinstervBullsRDS Arena
Sat, 25 Sep17:15EdinburghvScarletsEdinburgh Rugby Stadium
Sat, 25 Sep19:35MunstervSharksThomond Park
Sun, 26 Sep14:00DragonsvOspreysRodney Parade

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