United Rugby Championship: How it works, fixtures, TV details, Irish hopes and more

The Pro14 returns in a brand new guise this weekend with South African heavies in tow

The four provinces will play each other home and away in the new United Rugby Championship. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The four provinces will play each other home and away in the new United Rugby Championship. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

The United Rugby Championship, née the Celtic League/Pro12/Pro14/Pro16, gets underway this weekend.

It is the latest rebrand of the tournament which brings together the usual suspects from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy - as well as four new faces from South Africa.

With the last two seasons heavily disrupted by you-know-what, the new campaign promises to bring with it some (relative) normality.

Last year Leinster were crowned champions of the Pro14, which had 12 teams competing in it due to the absence of two South African sides.

They are clear favourites to retain their title again this year, with the competition set to run all the way through until the weekend of June 25th 2022.

The Bulls begin their URC campaign with a heavyweight trip to play Leinster on the opening weekend. Photograph: Lee Warren/Getty
The Bulls begin their URC campaign with a heavyweight trip to play Leinster on the opening weekend. Photograph: Lee Warren/Getty

The battle for European places means a normally straightforward format is less so this year - with South African sides set to compete in the 2022-23 Champions Cup.

But despite the complicated format, one thing is simple - finally, supporters will be able to click through the turnstiles to watch their teams once again.

Here is everything you need to know ahead of the start of the United Rugby Championship - URC.

What is it?

The URC is the latest version of the Pro14, with the Irish provinces, Welsh regions, Scottish and Italian sides joined by four South African franchises.

When is it?

The first round of fixtures gets underway this weeked, on Friday September 24th, with the final scheduled to take place on the weekend of Saturday June 25th, the venue for which is yet to be confirmed.

Who is in it?

Ireland - Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster

Wales - Scarlets, Ospreys, Dragons, Cardiff Blues

Scotland - Glasgow Warriors, Edinburgh

Italy - Benetton, Zebre

South Africa - Bulls, Stormers, Sharks, Lions

Rhys Webb and the Ospreys could prove resurgent this season. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Rhys Webb and the Ospreys could prove resurgent this season. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

How can I watch it?

RTÉ will broadcast 26 games involving the provinces during the league season, as well as additional fixtures once the knockout stages kick in. TG4 meanwhile have access to 26 fixtures including Irish sides, plus a further 16 URC games.

There is also a new streaming service - URC TV. A weekend pass costs €19.99, an All-Ireland pass - which gives you access to all the provincial matches - costs €99.99, while a season pass costs €119.99.

Every game will also be shown live on Premier Sports, which has the rights to show all 151 fixtures in the Republic of Ireland.

How does it work?

Nothing ever gets any simpler, the URC being a case in point.

Essentially, the 16 teams have been split into four pools. The four provinces, the four Welsh sides, the four South African sides and a pool containing the Italian and Scottish teams.

The teams in these pools will play each other home and away, as well as playing 12 fixtures against the remaining teams in the competition - six at home, six away.

The winner of each mini pool will be guaranteed a place in the next year’s Champions Cup, with the teams also competing in one overall table. The next four highest ranked sides in this table will also earn a European Cup berth.

The top eight seeds in the overall league table will be seeded from 1-8, which will decide the make-up of the tournament quarter-finals. Semi-finals and a final will then follow.

Make sense? Gerry Thornley has another explainer on the new format, which you can read HERE.

Meet the South Africans

The four South African sides aren’t entirely unfamiliar foes, after they competed in last season’s Rainbow Cup. They were kept apart from their European counterparts until the final however, which saw Italy’s Benetton stun the fancied Bulls 35-8 in Treviso.

You can get to know all four South African franchises intimately thanks to Johnny Watterson’s guide, which is available HERE.

Jack Conan in action for the Lions against the Sharks in July. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty
Jack Conan in action for the Lions against the Sharks in July. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty

How are the Irish sides looking?

The new competition format means each side will play six interprovincial derbies, three at home and three away. This will be good news for the coffers of the clubs who can hopefully count on bumper attendances as fans return, but it also makes European qualification harder, particularly for Connacht.

Leinster are favourites to lift a fifth-consecutive title, and despite having frightening strength in depth they will also see fewer international absentees, with the URC scheduled around the Test match windows. A scary prospect.

Gerry Thornley is previewing the hopes of each province throughout the week and they will be available here.

First up, it’s Ulster, who are looking to end a silverware drought stretching back to 2006.

Meanwhile Munster are looking to end a potless run of their own - their last trophy came in 2011.

How will the travel work?

With four of the sides based in South Africa, the URC will be responsible for plenty of air miles. In a bid to reduce long-haul travel, the South African sides will visit Europe in three or four-week blocks, playing a number of fixtures on the road.

Meanwhile for the northern hemisphere sides they will each visit South Africa once, playing two away games in succession.

What are the opening round of fixtures?

Round one

Friday September 24th
Zebre v Lions, 5.35pm
Cardiff v Connacht, 7.35pm
Ulster v Glasgow, 7.35pm

Saturday September 25th
Benetton v Stormers, 1pm
Edinburgh v Scarlets, 5.15pm
Leinster v Bulls, 5.15pm
Munster v Sharks 7.35pm

Sunday September 26th
Dragons v Ospreys, 2pm

Round two

Friday October 1st
Scarlets v Lions, 7.35pm
Connacht v Bulls, 7.35pm

Saturday October 2nd
Benetton v Edinburgh, 1pm
Glasgow v Sharks, 3pm
Zebre v Ulster, 5.15pm
Munster v Stormers, 7.35pm
Ospreys v Cardiff, 7.35pm

Sunday October 3rd
Dragons v Leinster, 2pm

Round three

Friday October 8th
Ospreys v Sharks, 7.35pm
Ulster v Benetton, 7.35pm

Saturday October 9th
Leinster v Zebre, 1pm
Glasgow v Lions, 3pm
Edinburgh v Stormers, 5.15pm
Connacht v Dragons, 5.15pm
Cardiff v Bulls, 7.35pm

Sunday October 10th
Scarlets v Munster, 10pm

Round four

Friday October 15th
Dragons v Stormers, 7.35pm
Ulster v Lions, 7.35pm

Saturday October 16th
Zebre v Glasgow, 1pm
Benetton v Ospreys, 3pm
Edinburgh v Bulls, 5.35pm
Leinster v Scarlets, 5.15pm
Cardiff v Sharks, 7.35pm
Munster v Connacht, 7.35pm

Round five

Friday October 22nd
Scarlets v Benetton, 7.35pm
Glasgow v Leinster, 7.35pm

Saturday October 23rd
Zebre v Edinburgh, 1pm
Cardiff v Dragons, 5.15pm
Connacht v Ulster, 5.15pm
Ospreys v Munster, 7.35pm

TBC
Stormers v Bulls
Lions v Sharks

Edinburgh and Glasgow have been pooled with the Italian sides in the URC. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Edinburgh and Glasgow have been pooled with the Italian sides in the URC. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

What are the bookies saying?

As previously mentioned, Leinster are heavy favourites to retain their title, with three provinces at the head of the betting:

Leinster 4-6
Munster 9-2
Ulster 8-1
Bulls 12-1
Scarlets 20-1
Edinburgh 20-1
Glasgow 25-1
Sharks 25-1
Stormers 40-1
Connacht 80-1
BAR 80-1

Can I go?

Finally, the answer to the million dollar question is. . . yes! On Friday Ulster are expecting an attendance of 15,000 for the fixture with Glasgow at Ravenhill, while Leinster can have up to 35,000 at the Aviva Stadium for the home clash with the Bulls on Saturday.

As the season progresses, hopefully, restrictions will continue to ease - meaning more supporters through the turnstiles.

Boy is it good to be back.

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