|Venue: Cardiff Arms Park Date: Friday 24 September Time: 19:35 BST|
|Coverage: Scrum V Live, BBC Two Wales; audio commentary on BBC Radio Wales, BBC Sport website & app. Highlights on Scrum V, Sunday, BBC Two Wales and online,18:00 BST and later on demand|
It has been in the making for some time, but finally the United Rugby Championship (URC) is here.
A new domestic season brings a new competition this weekend as 16 teams from five rugby nations form a tournament which kicks off in Italy on Friday.
The Pro14 has been rebranded with South Africa’s four top teams joining the competition for the 2021-22 campaign.
Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls will play alongside 12 existing sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
South Africa World Cup winners like Siya Kolisi and Lukhanyo Am will pit their wits against some of Europe’s finest.
Launching a league across five territories in different hemispheres in a Covid-19 pandemic presents significant challenges and the Springbok contingent will miss the opening couple of months because of international commitments.
The Lions will be the first South African team in action on Friday night when they visit Zebre, as the four sides from the southern hemisphere start the season with mini-tours of Europe. The northern hemisphere teams will travel south later in the campaign.
There will be one division, with end-of-season play-offs signalling the end of the conference system. Each team will play 18 regular league fixtures.
The top eight teams will qualify for the knockout stages, with quarter-finals and semi-finals planned before the final in mid-June.
There will also be four regional pools within the tournament with the Welsh regions, Irish provinces and South African sides each forming nation-specific groups, with the two Scottish and Italian sides linking up in the other.
This is designed to ensure derbies are maintained and the pools will provide the basis of Heineken Champions Cup qualification as South Africa sides prepare for the concept of European competition next season for the first time.
Each team will play home and away fixtures against their regional opponents, and 12 home or away fixtures against the remaining teams in the league. All sides are guaranteed nine home games.
BBC Sport gives you the rundown of the 16 teams vying to be the United Rugby Championship winners come summer 2022.
Coach: Marco Bortolami
Captains: Dewaldt Duvenage and Michele Lamaro
Home Ground: Stadio di Monigo, Treviso
Prospects: After winning no matches in the regular Pro14 season, Benetton pulled off a huge upset to claim the Rainbow Cup by beating Bulls in the final in June.
With Kieran Crowley becoming the new Italy head coach, Marco Bortolami is the fresh man in charge, with the former Azzurri captain adding Paul Gustard and Andrea Masi to his backroom team.
Benetton have lost internationals Jayden Hayward and Paolo Garbisi, but recruited Rhyno Smith and Andries Coetzee with Italy wing Monty Ioane still on the books.
What they say: “The win against the Bulls has gone now and we are looking forward to a new challenge.
“We are not sure how this season will unfold and we keep our fingers crossed everything goes to plan. We are not sure what we are looking at because not many sides have played their full strengths over time and hopefully this tournament will allow that.” – Marco Bortolami
Coach: Jake White
Captain: Marcell Coetzee
Home ground: Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Prospects: Consecutive Currie Cup trophies and a desire to avenge Rainbow Cup final defeat to Benetton last summer could make the Bulls the most realistic South African contenders.
A blockbuster opening fixture against Leinster promises to provide the highlight of the first weekend and should give some indication of how two of the favourites for the title measure up.
Headed up by World Cup-winning coach Jake White, Bulls have power and experience in the forwards typified by the likes of Marcell Coetzee and returning veteran hooker Bismarck du Plessis, although Duane Vermeulen has joined Ulster.
What they say: “We are looking forward to highly competitive fixtures against quality opposition. All participating teams will be looking to start the season on a high note, and it is no different for us.” – Jake White
Coach: Dai Young
Captain: Josh Turnbull
Home ground: Arms Park, Cardiff
Prospects: It is no longer Cardiff Blues but Cardiff Rugby who will play at the Arms Park following a name change, but some league success is what fans will be after. Consistency is what they crave.
Director of rugby Dai Young will take charge of a first full season in his second stint in charge after coming in for John Mulvihill halfway through last season.
Experienced Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland arrives from Bath to provide competition for Jarrod Evans, while lock Matthew Screech is back from the Dragons with Cory Hill heading to Japan. Josh Turnbull takes over the captaincy.
What they say: “We have looked to make our environment as professional as possible. We have set greater expectations around the standards of the players and the staff. We are all in it together. Without a shadow of a doubt, we will be ready for the season.” – Dai Young
Coach: Andy Friend
Captain: Jarrad Butler
Home ground: The Sportsground, Galway
Prospects: Andy Friend remains at the helm with a new-look backroom team hoping to drive Connacht on this season.
The quality and talent of this side has never been in doubt, as they proved again last season with some outstanding performances including ending Leinster’s 27-game unbeaten run in Dublin.
Consistency has been their downfall, and that is the buzzword at the Sportsground for the new campaign.
What they say: “It’s just putting in an 80-minute performance.
“There’s been patches of games that have got away from us. Even if it’s only 10-15 minutes, it’s enough to let the game slip away so it’s not only about being consistent game-to-game, it’s being consistent for the full 80 minutes as well.” – Connacht back row Paul Boyle
Coach: Dean Ryan
Captain: Rhodri Williams
Home ground: Rodney Parade, Newport
Prospects: Dragons threaten to improve every campaign, but still need to shake off the tag of the Cinderella region having been the only Welsh side not to qualify for this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Impressive wing Ashton Hewitt is sidelined by a knee injury for the start of the season, but Wales back Jonah Holmes will look to build on his blistering 2021 form.
Will Rowlands, Mesake Doge and Aki Seiuli are among the new signings who will grace the new playing surface at Rodney Parade.
What they say: “There is a level of excitement, and you add derbies and the crowds being back and I am interested to see how that manifests itself.
“Let’s not underestimate what the last two years have been like for everybody involved.” – Dean Ryan
Coach: Mike Blair
Captains: Stuart McInally and Grant Gilchrist
Home ground: The DAM Health Stadium, Edinburgh
Prospects: A new coach and new stadium for Edinburgh, but will the Scottish side be celebrating a new era?
Mike Blair has taken over from the departed Richard Cockerill, while the DAM Health Stadium will replace Murrayfield as the home ground.
Edinburgh have lost British and Irish Lions duo Duhan van der Merwe and Rory Sutherland to Worcester, but Hamish Watson remains and the likes of James Lang, Henry Immelman and Emiliano Boffelli have been brought in.
What they say: “The environment is really good at the moment. It is great to have a new stadium, to finally have a home, and I am looking forward to playing there. It’s exciting to have a new tournament and good for the fans and players.” – Scotland flanker Hamish Watson
Coach: Danny Wilson
Captains: Fraser Brown and Ryan Wilson
Home ground: Scotstoun, Glasgow
Prospects: Like their Edinburgh rivals, Glasgow have lost players to English clubs with Adam Hastings joining Gloucester and Huw Jones linking up with Harlequins, while Fiji second-row Leone Nakarawa has left for Toulon.
Fly-half Duncan Weir returns to the club he represented from 2010 to 2016, but will face stiff competition for the 10 jersey from Argentina international Domingo Miotti and academy product Ross Thompson. Jack Dempsey and Sione Tuipulotu are other notable arrivals.
What they say: “I think we’re looking good. We’ve had some very decent additions both in the playing group and in the backroom team, and everyone has slotted in well.” – Hooker Fraser Brown
Coach: Leo Cullen
Captain: Johnny Sexton
Home ground: RDS Arena, Dublin
Prospects: The visit of the much-vaunted Bulls for the opening game will be a chance for the 2020-21 Pro14 champions to assert their authority on the new competition.
Their Pro14 dominance has been absolute in recent seasons – and Leinster will expect to be in possession of the inaugural URC title come the end of the season. Perhaps, quietly, they hope the new format will provide stiffer competition on a weekly basis.
What they say: “The new format is about intensifying the pressure that we already feel.
“It’s a massive challenge, and it’s exciting that there’s a bit more clarity in the challenge we’re all facing.” – Centre Garry Ringrose
Coach: Ivan van Rooyen
Captain: Burger Odendaal
Home ground: Emirates Airline Park, Johannesburg
Prospects: The Lions will be the least fancied of the South African sides going into the tournament having finished bottom of the Rainbow Cup and the latest Currie Cup.
The Johannesburg outfit will feature in the new tournament’s curtain-raiser as they kick off their campaign against Zebre in Parma on the opening night.
What they say: “We are pretty excited about this group of players.
“We expect conditions to be challenging up north, but at the same time looking forward to competing and establishing ourselves as the competition progresses.” – Ivan van Rooyen
Coach: Johann van Graan
Captain: Peter O’Mahony
Stadium: Thomond Park, Limerick and Musgrave Park, Cork
Prospects: Desperate to shake off the ‘nearly-men’ tag, Munster will be feeling this is the season when it must all come together.
The returning Simon Zebo and a fully-fit Joey Carbery are expected to take their attacking game to the next level while the hope is that exciting young back-rows Gavin Coombes and Fineen Wycherley, fresh from their international debuts, will firmly establish themselves among the best in the league.
What they say: “The belief really is there. There’s an unbelievable buzz around the place.
“We have such a good squad, great coaches and last season we were really competitive. I think we’re just a step away from clicking and really competing.” – Centre Chris Farrell.
Coach: Toby Booth
Captain: Justin Tipuric
Home ground: Swansea.com Stadium, Swansea
Prospects: Ospreys have recruited well with Grand Slam winners Tomas Francis and Alex Cuthbert arriving from Exeter, Michael Collins and Jack Regan flying in from New Zealand and rising star Jac Morgan switching from Scarlets.
Wales fly-half Gareth Anscombe will be like a new signing after he made his long-awaited return from a knee ligament injury in pre-season against Northampton. He had been sidelined for 761 days after arriving from Cardiff.
The good news will be tempered by star turns Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate and George North missing the first few months of the season through injury. Wales and British Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones will figure after the opening couple of weeks.
What they say: “There has been a lot of transition and we are 12 months further down the line. We have shown we have been competitive and we just have to strive to be as consistent as we can.
“I am pretty pleased with our recruitment and it’s a balance about developing our own. – Toby Booth.
Coach: Dwayne Peel
Captain: Jonathan Davies
Home ground: Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli
Prospects: Scarlets were the last Welsh side to win a version of this tournament after lifting the Pro12 title in May 2017 and will hope for a return of those days.
They have turned to Scarlets legends with Dwayne Peel coming in as head coach and Jonathan Davies succeeding Ken Owens as captain after the hooker’s seven years in the role.
Argentina flanker Tomás Lezana provides some international flavour to the recruitment, while returning centre hero Scott Williams will hope to put aside an injury-plagued few years at Ospreys. The west Walians will though have to cope with the absence of injured full-back Leigh Halfpenny for most of the season.
What they say: “Last year was difficult for everyone, it was a mixed bag. Having the full season with a different league structure as well as the inclusion of the big South African franchises is very attractive.
“It is a new chapter in our history and we are looking forward to it.” – Dwayne Peel
Coach: Sean Everitt
Captain: Lukhanyo Am and Phepsi Buthelezi
Home ground: Kings Park Stadium, Durban
Prospects: They are the second best South African side of recent times after a pair of Currie Cup final defeats to the Bulls.
Lukhanyo Am and Makazole Mapimpi can add some backline firepower later in the tournament, while 2019 World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi signed from the Stormers in February 2021.
Familiar faces to Pro14 audiences will be Ruan Pienaar and Tian Meyer, both of whom joined the Sharks from the Cheetahs on short-term loan deals.
What they say: “The boys are excited about experiencing a new competition. The URC is a tough tournament that brings in new challenges and different opposition, but the guys are up for the challenge after a very good Currie Cup and a good year.” – Sean Everitt
Coach: John Dobson
Captain: Steven Kitshoff
Home ground: Cape Town Stadium, Cape Town
Prospects: The Stormers’ preparations for the new tournament have been dominated by off-the-field disputes between the South African Rugby Union (Saru) and Western Province Rugby Football Union (WPRFU).
On the field, the Stormers are led by South Africa prop Steven Kitshoff with head coach John Dobson replacing Robbie Fleck. They have, though, lost Springboks duo Kolisi and Bongi Mbonambi to the Sharks in the last year.
What they say: “I think the Currie Cup was a nice breeding ground for us, and this is a new competition that I believe is going to be really refreshing for our team.
“We’ve got nice plans in place, and we’ve done our analysis. We’ll focus on ourselves and we know our strengths.” – Lock Salmaan Moerat
Coach: Dan McFarland
Captain: Iain Henderson
Home ground: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast
Prospects: The box-office signing of World Cup winner Duane Vermuelen has offset some fears around the prospect of a first full campaign without Marcell Coetzee.
Having lost just two games in last season’s Pro14, Ulster were slightly miffed that the diluted format saw only the top side from each conference advance.
With the URC’s top eight qualifying for quarter-finals, such a finish is considered a bare minimum requirement for the Belfast-based province.
What they say: “We’re after silverware, we want to hold a trophy at the end of the year.
“We’re under no illusions as to the hard work we’ve got to do. There are a number of things where we think we can push on.” – Dan McFarland
Coach: Michael Bradley
Captain: Giulio Bisegni
Home ground: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma
Prospects: Zebre will be bidding to pick themselves up after a Rainbow Cup campaign in which they failed to win a single game and lost five matches.
There have been some late additions in Olympic sevens gold medallist Asaeli Tuivuaka, New Zealanders Liam Mitchell and Tim O’Malley, and South African centre Erich Cronje.
They will be aiming for a winning start in the competition’s curtain-raiser at home to Lions.
What they say: “Being able to have the vast majority of your squad for all of the URC weeks creates good competition in training.
“I am looking forward to having players present for the next six weeks and then back after the November internationals.
“It is a different picture for Zebre, Benetton, Glasgow and Edinburgh who who will be most affected by international requirements.” – Michael Bradley