The United Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend to herald a new era for the competition. Four leading clubs from South Africa – the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and 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 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 Round 1 on Sunday.
FRI – Zebre Parma v Emirates Lions
Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma | 18:35
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 and 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.
FRI – Ulster v Glasgow Warriors
Kingspan Stadium, Belfast | 20:35
Ulster finished 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.
The Irish side won both meetings with the Warriors last season and have triumphed in their last five encounters against 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.
FRI – Cardiff v Connacht
Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff | 20:35
Cardiff followed up a fourth-placed 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 came 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.
SAT – Benetton v DHL Stormers
Stadio Monigo, Treviso| 14:00
New coach Marco Bortolami will be looking to build on Benetton’s stunning Rainbow Cup triumph having taken over from Kieran Crowley. After beating the 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 encounter in the northern hemisphere ended in a 26-23 defeat to the Sunwolves in Hong Kong in Super Rugby back in 2018.
SAT – Leinster v Vodacom Bulls
Aviva Stadium, Dublin | 18:15
The standout fixture of Round 1 as PRO14 champions Leinster take on Bulls, the Rainbow Cup SA winners. Leinster have only lost one of their 23 matches at the Aviva Stadium – against Munster in 2014 – and have come out on top in six of their seven encounters against 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.
SAT – Edinburgh v Scarlets
Edinburgh Rugby Stadium, Edinburgh | 18:15
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. But 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.
SAT – Munster v Cell C Sharks
Thomond Park, Limerick| 20:35
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. They have won eight of their nine encounters against South African teams, while the last non-Irish side to beat Munster in the championship were Scarlets in 2017.
The Sharks were beaten 44-10 by the 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.
SUN – Dragons v Ospreys
Rodney Parade, Newport| 15:00
The Dragons will hope a Welsh derby can help fire them to a winning start to the new season after a bleak 20/21. 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 a Welsh opponent.
Ospreys, who have won 24 and drawn one of their 37 meetings, beat Leinster, Cardiff and the Dragons in the Rainbow Cup, having ended third in PRO14 Conference A.