No room for a level playing field in rebranded rugby championship

Gerry Thornley: Dividing teams into regional pools leaves Irish sides at a disadvantage

Leinster CEO Mick Dawson: ‘The biggest flaw in the tournament is the fact that it’s not based fully on meritocracy.’ Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Leinster CEO Mick Dawson: ‘The biggest flaw in the tournament is the fact that it’s not based fully on meritocracy.’ Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The main flaw in the rebranded United Rugby Championship is that neither the top eight who qualify for the play-offs nor the eight sides who qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup will be based entirely on merit.

This is because 16 teams have been divided into four pools of four teams, namely Irish, Welsh, South African and an Italian/Scottish group. Not only will each of the regional winners be guaranteed a place in the Heineken Champions Cup, along with the next four highest-ranked sides in the 16-team end-of-season table, but at a stroke the Irish sides will be disadvantaged by the extra two rounds of “regional” derbies.

Hence, it comes as no surprise to learn that the IRFU and the four provinces voted against this imbalanced format.

“The biggest flaw in the tournament is the fact that it’s not based fully on meritocracy,” said Leinster CEO Mick Dawson. “The four Irish teams and the IRFU voted for full meritocracy but we were out-voted so that’s disappointing. Otherwise, I’m hugely positive about the new competition.”

In the 2020-21 Pro14, the four Irish teams comfortably outperformed their Welsh, Scottish and Italian rivals. Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht occupied the first two places in each conference and accumulated 244 points, way more than the four Welsh regions (140) and the combined haul of the four Scottish and Italian sides (83). It was a similar story in the 2018-19 season, Irish sides earning 204 points, Welsh 121 and the Scots/Italians 146.

One can thus see why the Welsh, Scottish and Italians voted for a format which guarantees at least one Welsh side and one Scottish or Italian team qualification for the Champions Cup. Whereas the Scots and Italians will play six games amongst themselves and the other 12 teams home or away, Connacht will play six games against Leinster, Munster and Ulster and another dozen home or away. This is not a level playing field.

Daft

Ring-fencing the four “pool” winners to ensure their qualification could conceivably mean a team finishes eighth in the final table, go on to win the tournament, but will not have qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup. That also seems a bit daft.

Along with the four pool winners, the next four highest-ranked sides advance to the Champions Cup, although this qualifying mechanism will, admittedly, only be in place for two seasons. At that point, if any of the Irish, Welsh, Scots and Italians vote against it, the top eight who qualify for the play-offs would also advance to the Champions Cup. That said, the 18-game format is still imbalanced.

In all other respects, though, Dawson will be far from alone in enthusiastically welcoming this latest rebranding of what was once the Celtic League and has had countless reinventions over the last 21 seasons.

“In every other respect I’m a big fan of the United Rugby Championship,” said Dawson. “I think the organisers have done a fantastic job getting the four South African sides involved. The competition was slightly waning and the South Africans will add a new dimension.”

In addition to six “derbies”, each team will play the other 12 sides once apiece – six at home and six away – with a final league table ranked from one to 16 after 18 matches each. The top eight sides will be seeded 1 to 8, with the four highest-ranked teams having home advantage for the quarter-finals. That seeding will also determine who plays at home in the semi-finals.

Misnomer

Opening the door for the South African sides to qualify for the European competitions, while making it something of a misnomer, immediately gives the URC a more competitive and meaningful sheen.

The URC will start at a later date on the fourth weekend of September.

The six rounds of Irish derbies will not be run off at the start of the season, but rather will be mixed into the 18-round competition.

Irish supporters will be particularly grateful to hear that more than 50 of the 60 fixtures involving the four provinces will be shown on free-to-air television. This includes all dozen derbies and any play-off matches involving the provinces.

With BBC Northern Ireland also broadcasting Ulster games, the pay-per-view matches will mostly be Ulster away games due to Premier Sports’ UK rights. Premier Sports will also cover the remainder of the games in Ireland.

Tournament organisers are in advanced talks with both RTÉ and TG4 regarding a new television deal, and confirmation that the free-to-air broadcasters will be covering the vast bulk of the matches involving Irish sides is likely to be announced in the next week or two.

The Guinness sponsorship of the Pro14 having come to an end this season, negotiations are also at an advanced stage for new title sponsors and commercial partners.

Regional pools

Irish Pool: Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster
Welsh Pool: Dragons, Cardiff Rugby, Ospreys, Scarlets
South African Pool: Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls
Italian & Scottish Pool: Benetton Rugby, Edinburgh, Glasgow Warriors, Zebre Rugby Club

Fixture Dates for 2021/22 season

R1: Weekend September 24/25/26
R2: October1/2/3
R3: October 8/9/10
R4: October 15/16/17
R5: October 22/23/24
R6: October 29/30/31
R7: December 3/4/5
R8: December 24/25/26
R9: December 31/January 1/2
R10: January 7/8/9
R11: January 28/29/30
R12: February 18/19/20
R13: March 4/5/6
R14: March 25/26/27
R15: April 1/2/3
R16: April 22/23/24
R17: April 29/30/May 1
R18: May 20/21/22
URC quarter-finals: June 3/4/5
URC semi-finals: June 10/11/12
URC final: June 23/24/25

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