The BKT United Rugby Championship starts this weekend with an exciting round of games to kick off the new season.
Ulster travel to Parma to play Zebre in Saturday’s opening fixture, followed by Pete Wilkins’ first league game in charge of Connacht, who entertain the Ospreys at the Sportsground.
With three successive home matches to launch their 2023/24 campaign, head coach Wilkins said: “It’s all good saying you have three games at home compared to what we had last season (with three away trips to start off), but it’s only great if you win them.
“We’ve never come up against an Ospreys team that isn’t unbelievably physical and well organised. That’s part of the DNA in terms of the success that they have had.
“We expect this to be a very physical game. Being at home we will want to assert our style of play and show what way we want to play this season. To do that though we will need to earn the right.”
Ulster are hoping to kick off their league run where they left pre-season off, after finishing their preparations with a 19-14 win over Glasgow Warriors in their historic first outing at Cavan’s Kingspan Breffni Park.
The province’s defence coach Jonny Bell commented: “We know it is not going to be easy and I don’t say that lightly. We know it will be genuinely tough over there. We know Zebre are a side that are proud, especially when they play at home.
“It is their first game and they are excited about playing as well. We have to make sure that we do all our fundamentals incredibly well. They ran Leinster pretty close out there, they gave the Bulls a scare. It’s definitely going to be a really competitive game.”
The Dragons have home advantage against Edinburgh, and the first derby of the URC season will see the Emirates Lions and the DHL Stormers locking horns in Johannesburg.
Benetton have a early trip to the Welsh capital to take on Cardiff, while Munster begin their Championship title defence at Thomond Park, facing the Hollywoodbets Sharks in the Saturday evening slot.
Munster forwards coach Andi Kyriacou, who confirmed that Simon Zebo will miss the Limerick opener due to a foot injury, explained: “We want to start well and it starts on Saturday against the Sharks. That’s all we are looking forward to.
“We know what a challenge this season will be having gone through it last year, but we are locked in for the Sharks and taking care of business at Thomond Park at the moment.”
There are two more matches on Sunday afternoon, with the Scarlets starting their season in South Africa with a visit to the Vodacom Bulls, while Leo Cullen’s Leinster return to competitive action against Glasgow Warriors in Scotstoun.
“It was good to have those three pre-season matches that we had,” said Leinster scrum coach Robin McBryde. “Just to get a better sense of where the players are at. Naturally with a younger group of players, there’s more excitement around the group.
“We’re pretty happy with the way we’ve performed to date. We needed that test against Castres last week (a 24-14 loss). It was a proper match for us, there was a good crowd there, good intensity. They’re a bit further down the road than us, having already started the Top 14.
“It was a good test and one we needed before what’s going to be a tough game on the weekend. This period of time, the acceleration and the growth (of the young players), you know they’re going to come through and be banging on the door (for selection). They’ve been encouraged to do that.”
BKT UNITED RUGBY CHAMPIONSHIP – ROUND 1 FIXTURES:
Saturday, October 21 –
Zebre Parma v ULSTER, Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, 2pm local time/1pm Irish time (URC.tv/Viaplay/Premier Sports 2/SuperSport)
CONNACHT v Ospreys, the Sportsground, 3pm (TG4/S4C/URC.tv/Viaplay/Premier Sports 2/SuperSport) – click here to buy match tickets
Dragons v Edinburgh, Rodney Parade, 3.05pm (URC.tv/Viaplay/Premier Sports/SuperSport)
Emirates Lions v DHL Stormers, Emirates Airline Park, 4.05pm local time (URC.tv/Viaplay/Premier Sports/SuperSport)
Cardiff v Benetton, Cardiff Arms Park, 5.15pm (S4C/URC.tv/Viaplay/Premier Sports/SuperSport)
MUNSTER v Hollywoodbets Sharks, Thomond Park, 5.15pm (TG4/URC.tv/Viaplay/Premier Sports 1/SuperSport) – click here to buy match tickets
Sunday, October 22 –
Vodacom Bulls v Scarlets, Loftus Versfeld, 3pm local time (BBC One Wales/URC.tv/Viaplay/Premier Sports/SuperSport)
Glasgow Warriors v LEINSTER, Scotstoun Stadium, 4pm (RTÉ 2/URC.tv/Viaplay/Premier Sports 1/SuperSport)