A new season for BKT United Rugby is upon us, with all four Irish counties running on Saturday.
Can the Irish side respond after the disappointing end of last season? We take a look at some important talking points ahead of the new campaign…
All four Irish counties are entering this season with a point to prove – and they could end up taking the frustrations of the previous campaign out of each other.
The first half of the URC season is filled with inter-county derby, with all four provinces playing each other in the opening seven rounds.
Take the fledgling Ireland Tour into the mix and teams can stretch hard towards the end of the first set of matches.
Leinster won six of their first seven games last season, with an average winning margin of 24 points, but things are unlikely to be routine this time around.
With the South African teams left out of the Springboks, the playing field is level and there could be little separation between the top-ranked sides by the end of the year.
The upcoming Emerging Ireland tour will cause turmoil between provinces and could mean some Ireland players return to the club colors earlier than usual.
It’s been less than nine weeks since Ireland’s back-to-back win over New Zealand in Wellington, and while the majority of these players are back in training with their counties, it’s usually mid to late October before they usually see competitive action. .
However, with Simon Easterby moving Ireland’s emerging 35-player squad to South Africa, and a draining slate of derby matches on the agenda, some internationals may find themselves called into action before the end of the month.
Johnny Sexton participated in four URC games last season, two of which were starters. Could he improve that number in his latest campaign?
It’s been more than four years since one of the Welsh regions qualified for the play-offs, while all four finished the bottom half of United’s inaugural Rugby League.
Not a single Welsh player has made the URC Team of the Season. Even Michael Sheen might struggle to lift this underperforming quartet.
Uncertainty off the pitch continues to affect the professional game in Wales, with a funding deal yet to be agreed with the Welsh rugby union, which has overshadowed the start of the new season and positive recruitment by some teams.
Cardiff, who finished 14th last season, are signed by Welsh internationals Taulupe Valletau, William Williams and Thomas Young, while All Black Via Vivita has moved on to Scarletts from Wasps. JJ Hanrahan has also returned to URC after participating in Dragons.
Cardiff and Osprey have squads that could rival the top eight, but problems off the field could once again hamper their chances.
Having had a hellish start, Connacht hopes that the Sportsground’s new 4G course, combined with the usual Atlantic conditions, will give them a slight advantage over the visitors.
Andy Friends travels to Belfast on the Friday before the season opener against Ulster the following evening and will not be home for more than two weeks. They will remain on the eastern side of the country before traveling to South Africa on Monday for matches against both of last season’s finalists – the Stormers and the Bulls.
The Bulls play on September 30, seven days before they crown their new stadium with a derby against Monster, giving them a little time to practice on the new roof.
The Munster match is the first of three consecutive home matches for Connacht, which are visited by Leinster and Scarletts on consecutive Fridays. It’s a demanding schedule and can leave them playing catch-up, but Friend thinks they can turn it into a positive.
“It’s not a basic list to be afraid of,” a friend said. “We have this great opportunity to go away from the top three [matches]. There’s nothing better than getting out on the road with the team to build camaraderie, all that confidence and the backbone of what you need to get through a season.
“Then we’re back for three great games on a new rooftop at Sportsground. It’s the first phase of our new development and the club has put a lot of time, energy and effort into making all of this happen.
“There is no better team to come back to play on October 7 than Monster. It’s a really exciting period and I can’t wait to start playing.”
New coaches at the helm
Connacht and Münster weren’t the only ones to make significant changes to their coaching staff over the summer.
Glasgow, who sacked Danny Wilson following the crushing loss to Leinster in June, was taken over by former Italy coach Franco Smith.
Smith was coach of Benetton when they first entered this competition and led them to seventh place in his final season in 2013.
Staying in Italy, Fabio Rosselli has been handed the reins at Zipre after Emiliano Bergamci stepped down for personal reasons.
It has been a summer of sweeping changes at Parma, with 26 players leaving the club and 21 new arrivals.
Zebre finished last in the URC Championship last season with a single victory over the Dragons in their penultimate match. The Welsh club also made changes, with Day Flanagan moving to Rodney Parade from Scarlett to become the head coach.
Follow the 2022/23 BTK United Rugby Championship via RTÉ Radio, Television, RTÉ.ie/Sports and the RTÉ News app.
Watch live coverage of Cardiff v Munster, Zebre Parma v Leinster (September 17), Stormers v Connacht (September 24) and Dragons v Munster (September 25) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.