South African sides make new dawn one of promise for United Rugby Championship

Leinster and Munster both open with games against the newcomers this weekend

 Arno Botha and Marcell Coetzee of the Bulls lift the Currie Cup after the win over the Sharks in the final at  Loftus Versfeld. Photograph: Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Arno Botha and Marcell Coetzee of the Bulls lift the Currie Cup after the win over the Sharks in the final at Loftus Versfeld. Photograph: Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images

 

Another new dawn beckons with the revamped United Rugby Championship kicking off this weekend and this time there really do appear reasons for optimism, and even excitement.

Now entering its 22nd season, the Celtic League/Magners League/Pro 12/Pro 14 has had more makeovers than Madonna, but this latest reincarnation welcomes the addition of the four South African Super Rugby franchises and the competition returning to the national broadcaster, two factors which ought to ensure it seeps into the rugby public’s consciousness more than in recent times.

While every game will be televised live on Premier Sports and URC TV, all told 52 of the 60 matches involving the Irish matches will be on free-to-air, be it RTÉ or TG4.

RTÉ has secured the rights for live TV coverage of 26 games featuring the Irish provinces, plus additional knockout matches, while TG4 will broadcast 26 Irish games live as well as a further 16 non-Irish fixtures. It will be a long road to the Grand Final, which will complete three successive rounds of knock-out matches next June 18th and will alternate between RTÉ and TG4.

Plenty of accessible rugby then, and plenty of Bernard Jackman – the Luke O’Neill of Irish rugby.

Last night, Connacht-Cardiff was shown live by TG4 and Premier Sports, which also televised the Ulster-Glasgow encounter. This evening, the RTÉ cameras will pitch up in Thomond Park for Simon Zebo’s prodigal return in Munster’s opener against Sharks (kick-off 7.35pm).

In an intriguing double-header, TG4 and Premier Sports will show that meeting of the Pro 14 and Currie Cup beaten finalists, as well as the preceding clash between the Pro 14 and Currie Cup champions, Leinster and Jake White’s Bulls, at the Aviva Stadium (kick-off 5.15pm).

Simon Zebo returns to Munster and is named on the left wing for the game against the Sharks on Saturday night. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Simon Zebo returns to Munster and is named on the left wing for the game against the Sharks on Saturday night. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Every bit as welcome this weekend is the return of real, live, breathing and cheering spectators in significant numbers for the first time at Irish grounds since February 2020. Hallelujah.

With scarcely a week to sell tickets, and plenty of rival sporting attractions this weekend, neither Thomond Park or the Aviva Stadium is likely to reach its permitted capacity, and the Covid-19 guidelines that go with that model.

Tickets for the Munster-Sharks game are only available online at Ticketmaster.ie and will be available to purchase online right up to kick-off but will not be available at the stadium.

There will be a Ticketmaster van outside the Aviva, where a crowd of around 20,000 is anticipated, but supporters are advised to purchase in advance.

When the Celts and Italy first opened the competition’s doors to South African teams in the 2017-18 season, the Kingspan Stadium was rammed with an expectant 14,000-plus crowd which witnessed a high-calibre contest between Ulster and the Cheetahs which the home side won by 42-19.

Ultimately, the promise of that opening night was never quite fulfilled but this South African quartet are their four Super Rugby franchises. Admittedly, the player drain for that country was reflected in their poor showings against the British & Irish Lions last summer, but the Bulls are match-hardened and two weeks ago retained their Currie Cup title with a 44-10, six tries to one, rout of the Bulls in the final at Loftus Versfeld.

Showing just four changes from their starting XV, any team coached by White and captained by the former Ulster talisman and last season’s Pro 14 player of the year, Marcell Coetzee, is unlikely to roll over and have their bellies tickled.

This is even truer with White giving a debut to one of his 2007 World Cup winners, the abrasive Bismarck du Plessis, whose fire still burns at 37 and who will be well known to Leinster from meetings with Montpellier. Opposing Johnny Sexton will be the gifted Johan Goosen, restored after missing the Currie Cup prior to which he tested positive for coronavirus, a threat which hasn’t gone away, particularly with the South African sides.

The competition would benefit from the South African sides demonstrating their competitiveness from the off. Sexton captains a strong side also buttressed by the return of Garry Ringrose, Rhys Ruddock and James Lowe, who also missed last season’s run-in, as well as four players who were involved in the summer Tests against Japan and the USA – Hugo Keenan, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris.

Andrew Porter reverts to loosehead for the first time since November 2016 in a revamped frontrow which also features a competitive Leinster debut for Samoan World Cup prop Michael Ala’alatoa.

But also taking into account his team’s early-season rustiness, Leo Cullen fully appreciates the threat posed by the Bulls.

“Yeah definitely. They’re the most dominant team in the Currie Cup by a significant margin, that’s what it looked like from the score in the semi-final and final; so pretty comprehensive wins when it comes to knock-out rugby and I see they’ve added Bismarck Du Plessis since as well.

“At different stages they might get some Springboks guys back as well. The Bulls probably don’t have as many as some of the other teams have so it depends, team by team.

“In terms of the quality that they have, the tradition and heritage that all those teams have as well, I find it amazing, really, that we’re in the same competition now because when I was younger growing up I was watching these teams playing Super Rugby and all the rest.

“For them to be in our competition, the Bulls in particular, I think back to their very strong period with Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha and all the great players that they would have had playing at that stage.

“For us it’s a very, very tough challenge because we’re starting off and some guys are playing their first game of the season against a team that is battle-hardened, but it is what it is. We just need to get on with it now.”

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