The United Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend to herald a new era for the competition.
Four leading clubs from South Africa – the Vodacom Bulls, DHL Stormers, Cell C Sharks and Emirates Lions – have joined the other 12 northern sides to form a 16-team league.
There will be 18 rounds in the regular season with home and away fixtures in each of the four Shields – Irish, Welsh, Scottish/Italian and South African – with the other 12 encounters being played either home or away before the top eight advance to the play-offs.
Zebre Parma welcome the Lions to Italy on Friday to begin the new season before Cardiff host Connacht and Ulster take on Glasgow Warriors later that night.
Rainbow Cup winners Benetton are in action first on Saturday against the Stormers, with Edinburgh playing their first competitive match at their new stadium when the Scarlets visit.
PRO14 champions Leinster then collide with Rainbow Cup SA winners, the Bulls, in Dublin before Munster and the Sharks round off the day’s action at Thomond Park.
A Welsh derby between the Dragons and the Ospreys at Rodney Parade concludes the opening round on Sunday.
RTÉ and United Rugby Championship have officially launched URC TV, a new global streaming service offering fans around the world the opportunity to watch games live and on-demand, and follow their team home or away. Visit www.urc.tv to sign up.
UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP – ROUND 1:
Friday, September 24 –
Zebre Parma v Emirates Lions, Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, kick-off 6.35pm local time (live on Mediaset/Premier Sports 2/SuperSport Rugby)
These two meet for the first time as they open the new URC campaign in Parma. Zebre will hope the new season signals a change of fortunes for them having lost their previous eight Championship matches, their last victory coming at home to the Dragons in February.
Two of their three wins over South African opponents came in Parma – against the Kings in 2018 and the Cheetahs two years later.
The Lions have registered just one win – against Griquas at Currie Park – since losing to the British & Irish Lions in July and triumphed on their only previous visit to the northern Hemisphere when they beat the Sunwolves in Tokyo five years ago.
ULSTER v Glasgow Warriors, Kingspan Stadium, kick-off 7.35pm (live on Premier Sports 1/SuperSport Rugby)
Ulster finished as runners-up to Leinster in PRO14 Conference A last season before a disappointing Rainbow Cup campaign, their win over Edinburgh in their final match snapping a five-game losing streak in all competitions.
Dan McFarland’s men won both meetings with the Warriors last season and have triumphed in their last five meetings with Scottish opposition.
Glasgow finished third in the Rainbow Cup having pipped the Dragons to fourth place in Conference A. They won four in a row after a surprise loss to Benetton, with their home victory over Leinster in June halting a run of nine straight losses to Irish provinces.
Cardiff v CONNACHT, Cardiff Arms Park, kick-off 7.35pm (live on TG4/BBC Two Wales/Premier Sports 2/SuperSport Action)
Cardiff followed up a fourth place finish in PRO14 Conference B by coming fifth in the Rainbow Cup, having won three of their final four matches.
They have an excellent record against Connacht, winning 24 and drawing two of their 35 meetings, and have been beaten just once – by Munster – at the Arms Park since January 2020.
Connacht were runners-up in Conference B and had a decent Rainbow Cup campaign in which they beat Ulster, Munster and the Ospreys. The westerners have won just three times at this venue (2001, 2013 and 2017) and have not triumphed outside of Ireland since beating Benetton in February.
Saturday, September 25 –
Benetton v DHL Stormers, Stadio di Monigo, kick-off 1pm local time (live on Premier Sports 2/Mediaset/SuperSport Rugby)
New head coach Marco Bortolami will be looking to build on Benetton’s stunning Rainbow Cup triumph having taken over from Kieran Crowley.
After beating the Vodacom Bulls in Treviso, Benetton have been unbeaten at home since losing to Cardiff in March and have lost just one of their eight previous matches against South African opposition.
The Stormers won three and lost three of their Rainbow Cup matches as they finished second behind the Bulls and now meet Benetton for the first time. Their last outing in the northern Hemisphere ended in a 26-23 defeat to the Sunwolves in Hong Kong in Super Rugby back in 2018.
LEINSTER v Vodacom Bulls, Aviva Stadium, kick-off 5.15pm (live on TG4/Premier Sports 1/SuperSport Rugby)
The standout fixture of round 1 as PRO14 champions Leinster take on the Bulls, the Rainbow Cup SA winners. Leinster have only lost one of their 23 league matches at the Aviva Stadium – against Munster in 2014 – and have come out on top in six of their seven encounters with South African opposition.
Despite losing to Benetton in the Rainbow Cup final, the Bulls head into the URC campaign having been crowned Currie Cup champions for the second successive year. They overcame the Cell C Sharks in the Loftus Versfeld final having suffered their last defeat to the same team in early August.
Edinburgh v Scarlets, Edinburgh Rugby Stadium, kick-off 5.15pm (live on Premier Sports 2/S4C)
Two new coaches will be on show on a day of firsts as Edinburgh host the Scarlets in their maiden competitive match at their new Edinburgh Rugby Stadium. Mike Blair has taken over from Richard Cockerill at the capital club, while former player Dwayne Peel has returned to lead the Welsh side.
Edinburgh missed out on a place in the Heineken Champions Cup last season before a disappointing Rainbow Cup campaign – their last win coming against Zebre in April – and have not beaten a Welsh opponent since an 18-0 victory over Cardiff last November.
However, they have lost just one of their last eight meetings with the Scarlets, whose 27-25 win at BT Murrayfield in February was their first over a Scottish side since beating Glasgow in October 2019.
MUNSTER v Cell C Sharks, Thomond Park, kick-off 7.35pm (live on RTÉ 2/Premier Sports 1/SuperSport Rugby)
Munster are bidding to go one better this season having lost to Leinster in the PRO14 final as they chased their first title since 2011 before finishing second to Benetton in the Rainbow Cup.
The men in red won eight of their nine clashes with South African teams, while the last non-Irish side to beat Munster in the Championship were the Scarlets in 2017.
The Sharks were beaten 44-10 by the Vodacom Bulls in the Currie Cup final in Pretoria earlier this month, having come third in the Rainbow Cup SA. Their previous trip to the northern Hemisphere came in February 2019 when they beat the Sunwolves 45-10 in Singapore in Super Rugby.
Sunday, September 26 –
Dragons v Ospreys, Rodney Parade, kick-off 2pm (live on Premier Sports 1)
The Dragons will hope a Welsh derby can help fire them to a winning start to the new season after a bleak 2020/21. Dean Ryan’s side were the only Welsh region to miss out on the Heineken Champions Cup before finishing second-bottom in the Rainbow Cup.
They have lost their last four Championship matches and have triumphed in just two of their previous nine meetings with Welsh opponents.
The Ospreys, who have won 24 and drawn one of their 37 meetings, beat Leinster, Cardiff and the Dragons in the Rainbow Cup, having finished up in third spot in PRO14 Conference A.