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How each province is shaping up ahead of the new United Rugby Championship

TG4 will be bringing Irish fans free-to-air coverage of the competition this season.

Chris Farrell (Munster), Paul Boyle (Connacht), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster) and Garry Ringrose (Leinster).
Chris Farrell (Munster), Paul Boyle (Connacht), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster) and Garry Ringrose (Leinster).
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

AND JUST LIKE that, the new rugby season is upon us as the four Irish provinces prepare for the inaugural United Rugby Championship, which kicks-off this weekend.

The new league has an exciting, fresh look to it, with four strong South African teams – the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers coming on board.

There are also some intriguing new laws to keep an eye out for, such as the 50:22 kick and the goal-line drop out.

After a challenging couple of years for the Pro14, the hope is that this new chapter will provide a more exciting, competitive league.

And the good news for supporters in Ireland is that URC games will be free-to-air on TG4 throughout the season. TG4’s Rugbaí Beo will broadcast 26 games involving Irish provincial clubs and an additional 16 games featuring international club sides, while the URC final will be live on alternate years on TG4 and RTÉ. 

maire-treasa-and-gemma-ni-chionnaith TG4's Máire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill and Gemma Ní Chionnaith. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“There’s 150 hours of URC action on free-to-air channels, which is amazing,” TG4 presenter Máire Treasa Ní Dhubhghaill tells The42. “It’s brilliant that TG4 and RTÉ have come together.

“On TG4 we’re covering 26 games involving the Irish teams throughout the season and 16 games with the other sides, so it gives the URC a home.

“We have Eimear Considine, Deirbhile Nic a Bháird, Niamh Ní Dhroma, Marcus Horan, Ronan Loughney, Eoghan Ó Neachtain and Eamonn Molloy and then there will be another few (pundits) coming in as well, so it will be great to get different analysts and hear different opinions.

With TG4, we’re always trying to bring that ‘súil eile’ approach and always trying to bring the audiences closer to the action with things like the ref mics and player interviews on the pitch. So there will be more of that as well.”

Here, Ciaran Kennedy details how the four provinces are shaping up ahead of their opening fixtures:

Leinster

Even with the introduction of those new South Africa sides, Leinster will once again be the team to beat. Leo Cullen’s star-studded squad have dominated the various incarnations of this competition over the last few years and while the expectation is that the URC will ask some tougher questions, we know they have the squad depth to deal with the demands of a long, hard season. 

michael-alaalatoa-is-tackled-by-fraser-armstrong Michael Ala'alatoa has joined Leinster from Crusaders. Source: Photosport/Marty Melville/INPHO

They have lost some valuable experience over the summer, with veteran forward Scott Fardy and the long-serving Michael Bent both retiring, but as ever there is no shortage of young talent bursting through the ranks, while tighthead Michael Ala’alatoa is a quality addition from Super Rugby powerhouses the Crusaders. 

A true European heavyweight, it will be interesting to see how Leinster fare against the power of the new South African teams. 

First game: Leinster v Vodacom Bulls, Aviva Stadium, 25 September, 5.15pm, TG4

Munster

It’s the same old question facing Munster again – how do they take that next step and finally land some silverware? You don’t need to remind anyone of a Munster persuasion that you have to go all the way back to 2011 for the province’s last league title.

Johann van Graan’s team made some positive strides last season and at times played some excellent rugby, but ultimately they performed well below their best in the Pro14 final against Leinster, and unfortunately for Van Graan those are the days that define a season.

simon-zebo Simon Zebo is back at Munster. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They too have seen some legends of the club depart recently, with Billy Holland and CJ Stander both hanging up their boots, but the return of fan favourite Simon Zebo has injected some much welcome good vibes over the summer. The versatile Zebo provides Munster with another exciting option in a strong backline, where Joey Carbery will be hoping to kick-on at 10 having finally put his injury issues behind him, while RG Snyman’s long-awaited return from injury will be a major boost for the Munster pack.

The quality is there, Munster just need to deliver.

First game: Munster v Cell C Sharks, Thomond Park, 25 September, 7.35pm

Connacht 

It’s been an interesting summer for Connacht, with Andy Friend welcoming an almost entirely new coaching team on board. South African Dewald Senekal is now overseeing the Connacht forwards, with Peter Wilkins stepping into the role of senior coach, Mossy Lawler taking charge of attack and skills and Colm Tucker on defence and forwards’ technical skills.

Year on year, consistency creeps up as a major issue for Connacht. On their day they are one of the most exciting attacking teams to watch in the league, but too often they are guilty of poor game management or sloppy unforced errors. Big performances followed by gutting defeats – that simply has to stop if they are to live up to their potential.

gavin-thornbury Gavin Thornbury of Connacht. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Quinn Roux is a major loss having swapped Galway for Toulon, but Gavin Thornbury excelled in the second row last season and Connacht’s excellent recruitment over the past two or three years means they have an strong crop of young players who can hopefully kick on again this season.

However the new league format means the margin for error is slimmer than ever, and with so much change behind the scenes, the challenge is now for everyone to get on the same page quickly and make a positive start to the season. 

First game: Cardiff Blues v Connacht, Cardiff Arms Park, 24 September, 7.35pm, TG4

Ulster

Like Connacht, you could argue that Ulster’s most interesting new addition has come in the coaching staff, with Dan McFarland signing up Mikey Kiely – the S&C coach behind back-to-back All-Ireland hurling champions Limerick – on a full-time basis. Kiely’s appointment seems a smart move given McFarland’s desire for Ulster to play with an intensity that opponents can’t live with.

duane-vermeulen Duane Vermeulen is a major coup for Ulster. Source: Johan Rynners/INPHO

They pushed Leinster hard in Conference A last season – losing just two of their 16 games – and the goal is now to try better than this year. This is a squad with lofty ambitions, and the addition of World Cup winning Springbok Duane Vermeulen looks a real statement of intent. McFarland also has a number of talented young players pushing through, with winger Robert Baloucoune a potential superstar in the making.

Expect Ulster to play fast, attacking rugby as they look to cement their place as one of the top teams in this new-look, more demanding league.

First game: Ulster v Glasgow Warriors, Kingspan Stadium, 24 September, 7.35pm

TG4 is bringing the United Rugby Championship free-to-air to Irish fans, with TG4’s Rugbaí Beo broadcasting 26 games involving Irish provincial clubs and an additional 16 games featuring international club sides.

The first game live on TG4 & TG4 Player is Connacht v Cardiff Blues this Friday and coverage starts at 7.30pm.

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