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United Rugby Championship to kick-off in September with South African sides

The 16-team competition will use one league table and have 18 regular-season rounds.

Leinster and Munster will be part of the new URC.
Leinster and Munster will be part of the new URC.

PRO14 RUGBY HAS officially confirmed that the rebranded United Rugby Championship [URC] will launch in September and include the existing Pro14 teams as well as the four new South African franchises – the Bulls, Lions, Sharks, and Stormers.

The new 16-team competition will use one league table to rank the teams who will reach the knock-out stages, with the top eight sides going into the quarter-finals, which will be followed by semi-finals and a final in mid-June 2022.

There will be only 18 regular-season rounds in the URC, which will prevent clashes with Test rugby windows. Organisers hope this will mean more involvement in the URC for international players.

Each team will play six home-and-away games against their regional pool opponents, as well as 12 home-or-away fixtures against the other 12 teams in the league.

For the Irish provinces, that means home-and-away derbies against the other three provinces each season, as well as 12 games against the other sides in the URC.

The regional pools are as follows:

Irish pool: Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster

Welsh pool: Dragons, Cardiff Rugby, Ospreys, Scarlets

South African pool: Sharks, Stormers, Lions, Bulls

Italian & Scottish pool: Benetton Rugby, Edinburgh, Glasgow Warriors, Zebre.

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Each season, the home-or-away fixture will alternate, as is the case in the Six Nations. If Leinster played the Stormers in Cape Town during the 2021/22 season, then they would host the Stormers in Dublin the following season and the fixture would continue to alternate on that basis.

Teams travelling from the Northern Hemisphere will play two away games in South Africa each season and organisers say “the aim is for these games to be played back-to-back.”

The South African sides will play six away games in the Northern Hemisphere and “most likely require three-game tours.”

Any teams travelling to South Africa will have a 7-day turnaround leading into those games, including 5 ‘clean days’ that don’t involve any travel.

After 18 rounds, the top eight teams will be seeded 1 to 8 with the four highest-ranked teams having home advantage for the quarter-finals. That seeding will also determine who plays at home in the semi-finals. 

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The quarter-final fixtures will be played as follows: 1st v 8th , 2nd v 7th, 3rd v 6th, 4th v 5th

As for Champions Cup qualification, it has been confirmed that the South African sides will be able to qualify for the European competition from next season onwards “subject to the finalisation of contract terms with EPCR.”

The top eight teams in the URC won’t automatically go directly into the Champions Cup. Instead, the winner of each of the four regional pools will qualify, followed by the next highest-ranked four teams in the main league table.

This will ensure at least one club or province from each of the regional pools. Final seeding for the Champions Cup will be based on the URC league positions of all eight teams.

The tournament organisers – Pro Rugby Championship, in which SA Rugby will now become a full shareholder – say more than 140 new names were identified and evaluated for the league before they decided to opt for United Rugby Championship.

It’s understood that the new format will be in place for at least the next five years and that the organisers plan for this to the final change in format.

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Murray Kinsella

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