Upward Trajectories

Upward Trajectories

After a highly impressive victory over Toulouse in the semifinal, many were expecting Leinster to once again win the Champions Cup final last weekend. However, La Rochelle had different ideas, and Arthur Retière’s late try helped secure a 24-21 victory for the Top 14 outfit.

And while many people will be celebrated for the victory, one notable name is really adding to their legacy: Ronan O’Gara. The Munster and Ireland fly half had a legendary playing career which has seen him inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame, but his coaching career is taking him to even higher levels. After retiring from playing in 2013, O’Gara joined Racing 92 as a defence coach, who won the Top 14 once during his 4-year spell. From there, he moved to New Zealand to join Scott Robertson’s Crusaders team as a backs coach, and during his spell there, the Crusaders won back-to-back Super Rugby titles. After this success, O’Gara jumped up to the top spot as head coach of La Rochelle. Having been promoted to the Top 14 in 2014, the team had been developing some consistency in making the playoffs, and O’Gara built on that, with the team losing in the finals of both the Top 14 and the Champions Cup (both to Toulouse), before taking the step forward to win the ultimate European prize this season. And while results have generally gone well, it is also the performances and O’Gara’s way of thinking that has drawn praise from players, pundits and fans alike. It’s hard to imagine anyone else being the frontrunner for the Irish job if Andy Farrell were to step away right now, and in fact probably the bigger question is whether he comes back to lead a province beforehand, especially with Munster going through somewhat of a rebuild this summer and also seeing Graham Rowntree come in as head coach.

With O’Gara’s growth and development surely making an international appointment just a matter of “when” rather than “if”, it got me thinking of some other coaches whose success surely has them deserving of—or well on their way to—an international head coaching gig.

Scott Robertson

If I’d been in charge of selecting Steve Hansen’s successor, Robertson would already be the head coach of the All Blacks. While the All Blacks have faltered, the Crusaders have continued their success, and Robertson has been key to it. After the dark days of the end of Todd Blackadder’s reign, which saw the team finish as low as 7ᵗʰ in the 2015 and 2016 Super Rugby seasons, the team won 3 Super Rugby tournaments in a row and were running 3ʳᵈ when the 2020 Super Rugby season was halted by COVID. However, they then won back-to-back Super Rugby Aotearoa titles, while a 3ʳᵈ-place finish in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman saw them miss out on a spot in the final by just 6 points (which must have hit them hard as they conceded a try at the death in 2 wins, one of which even denied them a bonus point). However, they once again finished in the top 2 of the table in the inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season and (at time of writing, ahead of the quarterfinals) will be looking to earn that title over the coming weeks.

Robertson is (in my opinion) one of the top coaches out there, and I’ll be shocked if he is not appointed the All Blacks head coach following the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

 Steve Borthwick

Another player whose quick turnaround of a struggling team to return them to greatness, Steve Borthwick already has experience in an international coaching setup as England forwards coach, before moving to Leicester. Tigers had just finished 11ᵗʰ in back-to-back seasons, but Borthwick immediately turned things around and got the team back into the top half of the table in the 2020/21 season, before topping the table in the 2021/22 season to secure a home semi-final.

Though he has limited experience as a head coach, he has showed that he can get a team united in one vision and turn around a team with high expectations in a tough league, while his experience at Test level both as a player and forwards coach would set him up as a great option for many international teams, perhaps he will even be Eddie Jones’ replacement after RWC2023.

Stuart Lancaster

The former England head coach has the ignominy of leading England to their pool-stage exit at RWC2015, but it is clear that other parties were interfering with that run—highlighted by the Sam Burgess saga. However his move to Leinster, where he is a senior coach, has seen him earn praise across the board, while Leinster have won 4 consecutive Pro14s, a Champions Cup and at time of writing are probably the favourites to win the inaugural URC having topped the combined table.

Such has been his success, it’s time that he gets another shot at Test level, perhaps with a nation that has slightly lower expectations than England (how much would an Italy/Georgia/USA benefit from a coach of his calibre) while teams like Wales and Scotland may also want someone reliable to steady the ship following the disappointing (so far) reigns of Wayne Pivac and Gregor Townsend.

Shaun Edwards

The best defensive coach in World Rugby. The former Wigan rugby league star has become known for his time as defence coach of Wales, the 2009 British & Irish Lions and now France, where he has solidified himself as one of the best coaches in the game. But he also has plenty of head coaching experience, having led Wasps (then London Wasps) from 2005-2011, having started there as a defence/backs coach in 2001. Edwards’ trophy cabinet speaks for itself:

  • Wasps assistant coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 3 Premierships
  • Wasps head coach: 1 Heineken Cup, 1 European Challenge Cup, 1 Premiership
  • Wales assistant coach: 3 Six Nations
  • France assistant coach: 1 Six Nations

Edwards sets a culture within the team, which helps lead to success. If the RFU aren’t looking at him as Eddie Jones’ replacement following the World Cup, it will be a crime!

Who else would you add to this list?

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

United Rugby Championship 2021/22: 7 to Watch

It’s that time of year again as the Northern Hemisphere’s top flight leagues prepare to kick off again when I look at the all the teams in a competition and select 7 players new to their clubs this season who I think we should all be keeping an eye on. It’s something I’ve done a few times with the Premiership (check out my picks for this season here), while 2 years ago I also branched out to look at the Pro14, so now I’m looking at it’s replacement tournament: the United Rugby Championship. It’s safe to say that I’ve had mixed results in the past with my picks, but hopefully after a season off, I’ll find myself doing a bit better with my selections.

A quick reminder of the rules:

  • Players must be new transfers into the club. Academy graduates/short-term contracts from last year that have now signed longer permanent contracts/players who joined the club midway through last season/players returning from loans will not be included
  • Maximum 1 player per team, even if they have multiple players deserving of a spot on the list

So without further ado, let’s get on with the list…

Rhys Priestland

Its the start of a new era for Cardiff Rugby after their rebrand dropped the “Blues” moniker from their name ahead of this season, and they also find themselves with a new face at fly half in Rhys Priestland. The former Welsh international leaves Cardiff Rugby with options in the back line as they now have an experienced and reliable fly half as well as Jarrod Evans, who has shown quality but not quite stepped on as many would have hoped. Not only does Priestland give an alternative to Evans, but there is always the possibility of moving Evans out to 12 to create a dual-playmaker system similar to what was utilised on occasion when Gareth Anscombe was at the region.

Emiliano Boffelli

Losing Duhan van der Merwe is understandably a massive blow for Edinburgh, but the arrival of Boffelli will certainly go some way to alleviate that loss. The Argentine international brings 30+ caps worth of experience to the club, and at 26years old could be considered to be entering his prime. His versatility in the back 3 will open up options for Edinburgh and his quality in the air will be a real weapon for the team.

Josh McKay

Sticking in Scotland, we go over to Glasgow, who will be hoping that Josh McKay will become a key part of their rebuild. The 23-year-old arrives from the Crusaders, but it was at the Highlanders where he really came to the fore. This guy has pace to burn! Give him some space or a kick in behind the defence to chase and he will hurt the opposition. He just needs to hope that his team can get back to the level they were at a few years ago in order to give him the chances…

Michael Ala’alatoa

This feels like the most unnecessary signing ever when you consider how successfully Leinster bring players through, but the inclusion of Michael Ala’alatoa gives the province arguably the deepest 3-man depth chart at tighthead prop of any club in the world. With Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong also at the club, expect the trio to split minutes, while Ala’alatoa will provide a reliable and experienced presence when the internationals are away during the Six Nations.

Simon Zebo

The prodigal son returns! No, I’m not talking about Cristiano Ronaldo, I’m talking about Simon Zebo, who returns to Thomond Park after 3 seasons at Racing 92. A threat at both wing and fullback, Zebo brings great attacking flair to the game as well as plenty of experience at the elite level. Andy Farrell may have plenty of options in the back 3, but don’t be shocked to see Zebo back in the Ireland squad in the coming months now that he is eligible again.

Michael Collins

As someone who would consider the Scarlets my team of choice in the URC, hearing that the Ospreys had signed Michael Collins certainly made me nervous! The 28-year-old has been a key player for the Highlanders in recent seasons, splitting his time between fullback and outside centre. It was at centre where he really stood out to me, with his range of skills leaving a number of options on in attack and his experience of playing fullback allowing him to pick the right line to attack any gap he finds. Collins qualifies for Wales through his grandfather, so don’t be shocked if a solid start to the season sees him come into consideration for the Six Nations.

Gerbrandt Grobler

This final pick may come as a shock to some people, but Grobler has had a quietly successful career since returning from a drugs ban, having become a regular part of matchday squads at Racing 92, Munster, Gloucester and Stade Français. It was at Gloucester that I really got a chance to watch him play, and I was honestly gutted to see him leave. Despite being at the club at the same time as Ed Slater and Franco Mostert, Grobler took every chance to show his quality with some strong carrying, but his lineout skills were what really stood out. Now that he finds himself back in South Africa with the Sharks, expect to see him playing a key role securing the set piece—something which will be key to success in the URC.

Who would you put on this list?


This year, I will be running a predictions league for the URC on Superbru, and you are all invited! It’s free to enter and entirely for fun.

For those of you who have never done this before, each week you select who you think will win each match and by what margin (a draw is also an option) and you will be awarded points depending on how successful your predictions are.

Interested? You can join my league here or by downloading the Superbru app and searching for the pool with code partdour

Thanks for reading!

Unite The League

Unite The League
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.


The Teams

feat rugby URC teams

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.


The Format

For the purposes of creating the fixture list and European qualification (more on that later), the teams will be split into 4 geographical pools:

  • Ireland
  • Wales
  • 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.

rugby URC Martin Anayi QuoteNow 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.


Europe

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.

rugby URC Jurie Roux QuoteSo 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.


Broadcasting

rugby URC logo blue symbol black type

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?

feat rugby URC ball blue flat