After a season of surprises in the first campaign for the BKT United Rugby Championship, knowing the teams in the 2022/23 season adds a new layer of excitement.
Twelve months ago, not knowing what we were going to get from the South African teams, our search was limited to a Korean Cup and some easy matches against the British and Irish Lions.
Aside from the Springbok stars, the average fan knew very little about the broader teams of bulls, storms, lions, and sharks. We didn’t know what they would look like when they got to the north and we didn’t know what anyone else would do when they went south.
But after a slow start, the 2021/22 season showed South Africa to be the real deal, the Bulls and Stormers shattered Irish dominance, and the Western Province team eventually became the first URC champion.
The new season has been full of derbies, with nearly every round between now and the new year containing at least one Interpro encounter.
From an Irish point of view, this provides a tough start, especially for Connacht who starts off with a distant trip to Ulster, before traveling to face the Bulls and Stormers, and back for two other derbies against Munster and Leinster.
But if the Irish sides can get into the new year with respectable efficiency, a series of easier games may offer them a chance to gain some real momentum along the stretch, just as the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks did last year.
The meeting of Alster and Connacht is the most important game of the weekend, while Leinster and Munster are both on the way. Monster made their first of two trips to Wales in consecutive weeks when they face Cardiff at Arms Park on Saturday, while Leinster kicks off the day in Italy to face Zepre Parma.
Zebra Parma in Leinster (Saturday, 1 p.m.) Cardiff vs Monster (Saturday, 3.05 p.m.) Both are live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, while Ulster v Connacht (Saturday, 7.35 p.m.) Live on TG4.
Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1 will get live updates from Cardiff v Munster, as well as post-match reaction from Zebre v Leinster, and a preview of Ulster v Connacht.
RTE.ie/sport will have live scores and blogs all weekend with match reports and feedback from the stadium. All games live on URC TV.
Seems to be a perfect night for rugby in Belfast on Saturday night at Interpro’s big weekend, with a dry forecast and cool teen temperatures. Leinster wait for a rainy afternoon in Parma to take on Zepre, while Cardiff vs. Munster is expected to experience sunshine and temperatures around 17C.
We need your consent to download this YouTube contentWe use YouTube to manage additional content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to upload content.Preferences management
For the first time since 2017, Leinster entered the new season empty-handed.
The eight-time champions looked like the champions elected for much of last season, before succumbing in the semi-finals against the Bulls at RDS.
Without disrespecting the opponent, Leo Colin’s side got off to a good start to the new season, with a trip away to Parma followed by a home outing against Benetton next week.
As usual, Zebri is expected to suffer suffering this season, losing one of his best players Danilo Fichte during the summer, with the Italian international moving to London Irish.
Leinster have won all 16 confrontations between the two sides, including their infamous 3-0 win at Parma in 2018.
And although Zebre won his last home game at the URC last season, it was the only victory achieved throughout the entire season.
Zebri Parma: Richard Creel; Pierre Bruno, Eric Croni, Enrico Luchin, and Simon Jesse; Tiff Eden, Chris Cook; Paolo Bonfiglio, Jacques du Toit, Matteo Nocera; David El-Sisi (Captain), Leonard Krumoff; Luca Andriani, MJ Belser, Taina Fox Matamoa.
Alternatives: Luca Beggi, Juan Petinari, Mohamed Elhasa, Joshua Forno, Guido Volpi, Alessandro Fusco, Franco Smith Jr., Jacob Trulla.
Leinster: Max O’Reilly; Rob Russell, Jimmy Osborne, Charlie Ngatay, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Ed Byrne, Ronan Kelleher, Michael Alalatuwa; Ross Moloney and Jason Jenkins; Rhys Ruddock (Captain), Scott Penny, Max Degan.
Alternatives: John Mackie, Michael Milne, Vakhtang Abdul Ladzi, Brian Denny, Alex Soroka, Nick McCarthy, Kieran Frawley, Will Connors.
Rule: Ben Blaine (SRU)
The first game of the Rowntree era in Monster brings the former champions to Cardiff, which has had a busy recruiting campaign this summer.
Dae Young’s side have opened their wallets to bring in Liam Williams and Tulube Valletau among others, as they look to return to competing for a place in both the playoffs and the Champions Cup.
Cardiff finished last season in 14th place, and while they are arguably affected more by Covid-19 than any other team, there is no excuse for their form at the end of the season, not least the season finale where they shipped 69 points to Benetton in Treviso.
Likewise, the Monster season fizzled out, and while there’s renewed energy under a new coaching card, both Rowntree and his aides warn that their thoughts may take some time.
However, their recent record against Welsh teams is good, as they have won 15 of their last 16 URC matches against the regions, including six in a row against opponents this weekend.
They’ve also won each of their last two visits to Arms Park.
Cardiff: Liam Williams; Owen Lane, Ri Lee Lo, Max Llewellyn, Josh Adams; Jarrod Evans, Thomas Williams; Reiss-Carré, Christian Dassi, Dillon Lewis; Josh Turnbull (captain), Seb Davis; James Botham, Thomas Young, Tulube Valletau.
Alternatives: Liam Belcher, Rhys Barratt, Dimitri Aribe, Matthew Sark, Lupiti Timani, Lloyd Williams, Reese Priestland, Ulisse Hallahulu.
Monster: Shane Daly. Calvin Nash, Chris Farrell, Malakai Fikitua, Liam Combis; Ben Healy and Paddy Patterson; Josh Witcherley, Niall Scannell, Keenan Knox; Jane Klein, Finen Witcherley; Jack O’Donoghue (Captain), Alex Kendelin, Jack O’Sullivan.
alternativesDiarmuid Barron, Dave Kilquin, Roman Salanoa, Tom Ahern, John Hodnett, Neil Cronin, Jack Crowley, Rory Scannell.
Rule: Mike Adamson (SRU)
With such a difficult string of matches to start the season, Konnacht’s best hopes of winning his first three away matches could be on this opening night, when teams can sometimes come in a little chilly.
Ulster started last season hot, despite winning four of the four games Connacht finished at the Aviva Stadium.
And while AndyFriend’s side triumphed that day, it was Ulster who looked by far the better team in the reverse game in February, winning 32-12 at Kingsspan.
Ulster turned Ravenhill into a fortress, losing only once at their own stadium in 2021/22, but this match has been quite evenly matched in recent years, the two teams have shared their last eight meetings four times, and Konacht has won here in both. 2018 and 2021.
Both teams will be without their captains on opening night, Ian Henderson and Jack Carty are still fit after off-season surgery, and history will show that when Carte isn’t playing, Konacht tends to struggle.
Despite Henderson’s influence in his county, their county is a deeper pond.
Ulster: Stuart Moore; Rob Balcon, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCluskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, Nathan Duack; Eric O’Sullivan, Tom Stewart, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor (Captain), Sam Carter; Matti Rea, Marcus Rea, David McCann.
Alternatives: John Andrew, Callum Reed, Jeff Toumaga Allen, Cormac Izuchocco, Jordy Murphy, David Shanahan, Angus Curtis, and Aaron Sexton.
Konnat: Ternan O’Halloran, Byron Ralston, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, John Burch; Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion; Peter Dooley, Dave Heffernan, Jack Unger; Gavin Thornberry (captain), Leva Vivita; Josh Murphy, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle
Alternatives: Dylan Tierney Martin, Dennis Buckley, Sam Ello, Niall Murray, Hurley-Langton Suns, Kaolin Blade, David Hokshaw, and Oran McNulty.
Rule: Ohan Cross (IRFU)
Follow the BKT United Rugby Championship 2022/23 via RTÉ Radio, Television, RTÉ.ie/Sports and the RTÉ News app.
Watch live coverage of Zebra Parma in Leinster and Cardiff vs. Monster (September 17) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.