“This is rugby like you have never seen it before. Welcome to the United Rugby Championship.”
Today was a big day for European rugby, with the official announcement of the new-look United Rugby Championship. Replacing the Pro14/Pro16 and with investment from CVC, the United Rugby Championship (URC) will be the top flight league for Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and South Africa, with 16 teams taking part. But how will it look, what format will it take and what does this mean for European qualification? Read on to have these questions answered and get my opinion as an England-based lover of all rugby.
So there’s no real shock in the teams being announced here for anyone who has followed the Pro14/Pro16/Rainbow Cup saga over recent years. The teams from the Pro14 will continue in the tournament, except for the Toyota Cheetahs and Southern Kings, who have been replaced by the 4 South African teams who were playing in Super Rugby until COVID-19 changed the world. This will leave us with 16 teams covering 5 countries:
- Ireland: Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connacht
- Wales: Scarlets, Dragons, Ospreys, Cardiff Rugby
- South Africa: Sharks, Stormers, Lions, Bulls
- Scotland: Glasgow Warriors, Edinburgh
- Italy: Benetton, Zebre
So no real surprises here and while it is a shame to see the Kings (who disbanded after going into liquidation) and the Cheetahs included, the 4 South African franchises leave the league with a manageable number and no nation having a real monopoly on the league.
For the purposes of creating the fixture list and European qualification (more on that later), the teams will be split into 4 geographical pools:
- South Africa
- Scotland & Italy
A season will see each team face the other 3 in their pool home and away, thereby keeping the local derbies that everybody loves. They will then play a further 12 matches (6 home, 6 away) against teams from the other 3 pools. The expectation is that South African teams will play their 6 away matches against the Northern Hemisphere teams in 2 3-week tours, while teams travelling down to South Africa will likely play their 2 away matches against South African opposition in back-to-back weeks. From these suggestions, I imagine that as far as possible, each team will play 2 home and 2 away matches against each of the other pools, though that has not been explicitly stated.
Now this is where things get very interesting: matches will be played outside of Test windows, so rather than the frequently understrength teams of the Pro14, teams will usually have their internationals available. Of course, matches outside the Test window (as Wales love to do) will still lead to some matches where the internationals are missing. This to me is probably one of the biggest and best bits of news from the entire announcement, as the lack of top players was one of the biggest complaints about the URC’s predecessor in recent years.
Once all 18 rounds have been played, the top 8 teams in the league table (yes, we’re back to just one table rather than conferences!) will go into a seeded playoff, that will be played over 3 weeks: quarterfinals, semifinals and then the final. So 21 weeks of rugby for a team who goes all the way, down from 24 under the most recent Pro14 format.
The first round of the competition will take place on the final weekend of September, and the URC Grand Final weekend will take place in mid-June.
So here’s the big thing: the 4 South African teams will be eligible to play in the EPCR competitions. Now I admit that I’m a little disappointed by this that a Tier 1 non-European nation will be taking up 4 spot rather than trying to grow opportunities for emerging European nations like Georgia, Russia, Spain and Romania. Once again money speaks louder than any words about growing the game. However, with all 1 teams able to qualify for the Champions Cup, it will mean that the teams qualifying are their on merit.
So how will it work? Well remember those pools from earlier? This is where they return.
The top team from each pool will automatically qualify for the Champions Cup, guaranteeing 1 Welsh, 1 Irish, 1 South African and 1 Scottish/Italian team will qualify. But of course that’s only 4 teams, and there are 8 Champions Cup places. So now we return to the overall league table, where the top 4 teams who have not already qualified will make up the remaining spots. Seeing for the Champions Cup will be based on standings in the overall table, so if a team tops their pool but finishes 8ᵗʰ in the league, they will get the 8th seed, while a team who finished 2ⁿᵈ in the league behind another from their pool would still get a number 2 seed.
While this isn’t necessarily ideal for the Scots and Italians, I can’t really think of a better way to ensure a variety of nations being represented in the Champions Cup and adding extra meaning to the derby games while also suitably rewarding the most successful teams of the season.
It doesn’t look like everything has been confirmed with regards to broadcasting yet, but I would imagine that for us in the UK, Premier Sports will remain the broadcaster. As someone who already pays for both Sky Sports and BT Sport, it is hard to justify paying for another channel, but with a more attractive prospect in the URC and some o the other rugby they have recently got hold of, I may have to try and find some funds, but this only highlights the issue for a rugby fan who wants to watch as many leagues as possible.
Hopefully if nothing else, the quality of highlight packages on YouTube will improve, while there will hopefully be a free-to-air highlights show that runs every week at the same time, rather than when the channel can be bothered. Honestly, living in England and trying to keep up with the Pro14 while not being able to afford another subscription services has been an absolute nightmare!
So overall, I’m feeling very positive about this new start. How about you?