UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP
With all eyes on RWC 2023, third season of URC is set for kick-off
It may feel like the eyes of the rugby world are on France at the moment, but this weekend the third edition of the United Rugby Championship begins.
All 16 teams will be in action on Saturday and Sunday. Locally, the opening match is a mouth-watering derby in Johannesburg between the Lions and the Stormers, winners of the inaugural competition in 2022, and runners-up last season, at 16.05pm on Saturday.
The action then moves to Limerick in Ireland, where the Sharks get their campaign off on a very tough note, against the defending champions, Munster (18h15).
The final match involving a South African team kicks off at 15h00 in Pretoria, when the Bulls — runners-up in 2022 — host the Scarlets from Wales.
The South African season opener in Johannesburg pits the Stormers against the only local side that has managed to beat them in the URC.
Amazingly, the Capetonians have beaten the Bulls six times straight, and have won three and drawn one against the Sharks.
The Lions, though, beat the Stormers in their first league fixture, way back on 4 December 2021, by 37-19 in Cape Town. The last time these teams met in Johannesburg, the visitors won by 31-22 in round seven on 29 October 2022.
Read more in Daily Maverick: URC went from an interesting experiment in 2022 to a world-class competition in 2023
Joining Jozi’s Pride in recent months are Richard Kriel (outside back), Erich Cronje (centre), Zander du Plessis (flyhalf/centre), Kade Wolhuter (flyhalf — on loan), Conraad van Vuuren (prop), and Hanru Sirgel (flanker).
Meanwhile, Springboks Warrick Gelant (outside back), Courtnall Skosan (wing) and Lizo Gqoboka (prop) have joined the Stormers in the off-season, joining other new signings in wing Ben Loader, former Lions prop Sti Sithole and utility forward Hendre Stassen in Cape Town.
The Sharks start the season with three games abroad, and head coach John Plumtree, who is back in Durban after a few years coaching in Ireland, New Zealand and Japan, has handed the captaincy to Springbok centre Francois Venter for their tour.
Springboks Coenie Oosthuizen (prop), Francois Hougaard (scrumhalf) and Aphiwe Dyantyi (wing) have been included in the squad, along with former Junior Springbok captain George Cronje (loose forward), who has moved to Durban from Bloemfontein.
Last season, Munster claimed a thrilling draw in Durban in the final round of the regular season, which set them on a course to win all three of their playoffs away from home to ultimately lift the trophy in Cape Town.
The Bulls — with Springbok forwards Marcell Coetzee and Ruan Nortje named as co-captains for the season — will be looking for a repeat of their home victory over the Scarlets in round seven in March 2022, when the men from Pretoria beat their Welsh visitors by 57-12.
New players on the Bulls’ roster include Springboks Akker van der Merwe (hooker), Wilco Louw (prop) and Willie le Roux (fullback), as well as Khutha Mchunu (prop), Jannes Kirsten (utility forward), Deon Slabbert (lock — on loan), Mpilo Gumede (loose forward), Jaco van der Walt (flyhalf), Henry Immelman (utility back), Sebastian de Klerk (centre), Sergeal Petersen (wing), and Devon Williams (fullback – on loan).
Change in qualifying
In other news, the URC will introduce full meritocracy for EPCR qualification starting from this season (2023/24).
In a change from the previous qualification method employed by the URC for the last two campaigns, all eight top-ranked teams from the league table will qualify for the Champions Cup, with the remaining sides taking their place in the EPCR Challenge Cup.
The winners of the four regional pools — the South African, Irish, Welsh and Scottish/Italian Shields — will no longer be awarded a place in the Champions Cup and the primary way to qualify from the URC is to finish in the top eight after the 18-round regular season.
Should a URC team win the Champions or Challenge Cups without finishing among the top-ranked teams in the league table, they will receive a place in the Champions Cup.
In such an event, the team that finishes eighth in the URC will be placed into the EPCR Challenge Cup.
Martin Anayi, URC chief executive, said: “The first two seasons of URC set records for audiences and attendances thanks to the appeal and jeopardy of the league.
“Returning to straight meritocracy as a qualification method for the Champions Cup will further turn up the dial on the competitiveness of our league.
“The debate between representation and meritocracy in our league has always been a complex discussion among our stakeholders. However, when it comes to creating the most competitive arena for our teams, meritocracy is a proven method for achieving this.
“In 2017 we brought in full meritocracy over representation in the PRO12 and this lifted the level of competition throughout the league.
“When launching the URC against the backdrop of the pandemic it was prudent to choose the representative qualification route and now after the review our stakeholders have opted to return to meritocracy.”
In other matches this weekend, Zebre Parma will host Ulster in the opening game on Saturday. That clash is followed by Ospreys making the trip to Galway to face Connacht, Dragons RFC welcoming Edinburgh, and Benetton travel to the Arms Park to face Cardiff Rugby.
Sunday’s other fixture will see Glasgow Warriors host Leinster. DM