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.
Images & Content from Irish Rugby & Images © Inpho Photography
Sean O’Brien to retire from rugby
London Irish can confirm Seán O’Brien is set to retire from rugby at the end of the 2021/22 season.
The back-row forward will bring a storied 14-year career to a conclusion this summer after two-and-a-half years with the Exiles.
O’Brien spent eleven seasons with his home province of Leinster, winning four Pro12/ Pro14 league titles, four Heineken Cup/ Champions Cup honours and an Amlin Challenge Cup, whilst also earning the ERC European Player of the Year accolade in 2011.
He was capped 56 times for Ireland between 2009 and 2019 and represented the British and Irish Lions on two tours, firstly to Australia in 2013 and then to New Zealand in 2017.
O’Brien joined London Irish in December 2019 and has played a vital part across three successful seasons in west London, becoming a fan favourite amongst the Exile Nation.
On his decision to retire, O’Brien stated: “After much deliberation and consultation with my family and friends, I can confirm that I have decided to retire from playing professional rugby at the end of the season.
“I’ve had an incredible career and am thankful for every second of my time at Leinster, Ireland, London Irish and the British & Irish Lions.
“As a 20-year-old, I fulfilled my childhood dream by pulling on the Leinster jersey, and when I made my debut against Cardiff Blues in 2008, I never imagined what would then follow over the next 14 years.
“A special mention must go to Colin McEntee for his ‘big brother’ approach when I joined the academy.
“I feel lucky to have experienced so many wonderful highlights over the course of my career.
“At an international level, I feel privileged to have won 56 caps for Ireland.
“I gave everything I could possibly give, and I will always look back with great pride at every time I pulled on the Irish jersey to represent my country, my county, my friends, and family.
“I feel very fortunate to have had the career I’ve had but none of it would have been possible without the support of so many people.
“Firstly, I would like to thank my Mam and Dad for taking me to Ballon Rathoe Community Games and then Tullow RFC when I was 8 years old.
“They took me to every sport in my area which gave me the exposure to all types of sport.
“They were the perfect role models who taught me to not be afraid of hard work, which certainly helped me progress my career and I can’t thank them enough.
“I was lucky to play alongside some great players and under some brilliant managers and coaches during my time at Tullow, Leinster, Ireland, London Irish and the Lions and I would like to thank every one of them.
“I would also like to thank the backroom staff at each of those clubs, they all showed me fantastic support during my time with them.
“I would like to say a special thank you to some people who believed in me early on in my career, who are sadly no longer with us.
“Jim Kealy (Tullow RFC) and David Wilkie (Edenderry RFC) always said the right thing to me and gave me direction when needed.
“Away from rugby, I feel lucky to have had such a close group of friends that I have always been able to count and rely on throughout the course of my career.
“Thanks to all of you, especially James Foley and Daniel Davey.
“Finally, the most important thank you is reserved for my family.
“I can’t thank my Mum, Dad and brothers (Stephen and William) sisters (Caroline and Alex) enough for their unconditional support over the years.
“It has meant everything to me and to have 6 nephews watching means the world to me.
“There is still a lot of rugby to be played this season before the time comes to hang up my boots, and I am fully focused on giving my all in the London Irish jersey until then.
“I’m going to soak up every minute I get on the pitch and look forward to helping the team wherever I can.
“I am excited about the future and feel I still have a lot to offer the game, in whatever capacity that may be.
“I am currently taking my time to consider a number of options and will make an announcement with regards to the next stage of my career very soon.”
Dan Leavy to retire
It has been announced that Leinster Rugby back row Dan Leavy is to retire from the game with immediate effect.
The 27-year-old has played 79 times for Leinster Rugby since his debut against Edinburgh Rugby in October 2014 and has also won 11 Ireland caps.
Unfortunately, Leavy suffered a significant knee injury against Ulster Rugby in March 2019, and following expert medical opinion, and despite his best efforts, he has been advised to retire.
Speaking to leinsterrugby.ie, Leavy said, “I have done everything I can to come back from the knee injury I suffered in 2019 but unfortunately I can’t do any more or ask any more of my body.
“I’d like to thank Andy Williams, my surgeon, and Karl Denvir, my physio in Leinster, for all that they have done for me in the years since then. I can take solace from the fact that I tried everything over the last three years.
“From the early days in Old Belvedere to my time in St Michael’s College, all I wanted was to pull on a Leinster Rugby jersey. And then when you achieve that, it’s an Ireland jersey.
“I am very proud of all that I achieved in my short time as a professional.
“Some amazing highs with my brothers in blue and in green and I am beyond grateful for those days and those moments especially the highs of 2018 in Bilbao, the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham.
“More than that I am proud of how I carried myself, in particular over the last few years, and I hope I represented my club, my country, my family and friends to the best of my abilities in those years. I am beyond grateful to them all for their support and in particular to my mum and dad, Eilish and Donal, my sister, Rachel, and my brother, Adam.
“I am also very grateful to Leo Cullen. Leo has been an unbelievable support to me over the last few years. On the field, and off, and I cannot thank him enough.
“Not many people get to enjoy and experience what I have over the last 10 years representing my school, my club and my country.
“This is not the end I had hoped for, but as I look back, at the highs and the lows, they have all been shared with the best teammates, family and friends around me, and what more could I ask for?”
Leinster Rugby head coach Leo Cullen said, “Dan was a player earmarked from an early age as a special talent and I think everyone could see that, particularly in those few years in and around 2017, ’18 and ’19, just how dynamic and destructive a player he could be with Leinster and with Ireland where he went on to achieve unprecedented success at that time.
“While the public have seen very little of Dan since his injury, we have seen plenty of him in here and we have seen the same determination, character and drive that marked him out on the pitch as one of the best.
“Dan has also received incredible support from his family and all the medical staff here along the difficult path of trying to return to playing.
“Speaking on behalf of the support staff here at Leinster Rugby it has been a pleasure and privilege to have worked with Dan. He always brought such a positive energy to the group and we will all miss him dearly but would like to acknowledge the significant contribution he has made to the team during his time here.
“Talking to him, Dan is very appreciative of the times he has enjoyed in here with Leinster but now, it’s about us all supporting him as best we can as he starts that next stage in his life.
“I have no doubt that he will apply himself with the same determination that we have seen since he first pulled on a Leinster jersey in 2014 and that he will make a success of himself away from the rugby fields. We wish him well and I hope he knows that there will always be a warm welcome for him here in UCD or down the road at the RDS.”
Leavy, who played seven times for Leinster this season and last appeared against Ulster Rugby last month, made his debut in 2014 and has played 79 times in total for Leinster Rugby scoring 17 tries.
He was an ever-present member of the double-winning Leinster Rugby squad of 2017/18 and he brought that club form to the international stage when making his Irish debut in November 2016 against Canada at Aviva Stadium.
He made his Six Nations debut later that season coming off the bench against England at Aviva Stadium in March 2017.
During his Ireland career, he never lost a game in his 11 caps and was a key member of the Grand Slam-winning side of 2018.
Everyone in Leinster Rugby sends Dan our very best wishes for the future, and thank him most sincerely, for brilliant days in blue.
Dan Leavy Biog:
DOB: 23 May 1994
Height: 6′ 3″
Weight: 16st 7lbs
Leinster Caps / Tries: 79 / 17
Ireland Caps / Tries: 11 / 3
Ireland Team Named For Super Saturday Scotland Showdown￼
Andy Farrell has named the final Ireland Match Day Squad of the 2022 Guinness Six Nations Championship ahead of the Round 5 clash with Scotland at Aviva Stadium this coming Saturday.
Bundee Aki and Garry Ringrose are retained in midfield with a back three featuring Hugo Keenan, James Lowe and Mack Hansen, the Connacht wing comes in for Andrew Conway who is being managed for a knee niggle.
The front row of Cian Healy, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong is retained while Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson are named at lock.
Jack Conan is named at No.8 with Caelan Doris switching to the blindside flank and Josh van der Flier makes his eight consecutive start at openside.
The replacements are Rob Herring, Dave Kilcoyne, Finlay Bealham, Kieran Treadwell, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery and Robbie Henshaw.
The game which kicks off at 4.45pm will be televised by VIRGIN (ROI) and ITV (NI). Ireland can win the Triple Crown for the first time since 2018 by beating Scotland.
IRELAND Team & Replacements (v Scotland, 2022 Guinness Six Nations, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, March 19, kick-off 4.45pm):
15. Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD) 19 caps
14. Mack Hansen (Connacht) 3 caps
13. Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD) 41 caps
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians) 36 caps
11. James Lowe (Leinster) 11 caps
10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 104 caps CAPTAIN
9. Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster) 16 caps
1. Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) 115 caps
2. Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne) 6 caps
3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf) 56 caps
4. Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne) 29 caps
5. Iain Henderson (Ulster/Academy) 67 caps
6. Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 16 caps
7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD) 39 caps
8. Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere) 26 caps
16. Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 25 caps
17. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster/UL Bohemians) 47 caps
18. Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) 22 caps
19. Kieran Treadwell (Ulster/Ballymena) 4 caps
20. Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution) 83 caps
21. Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) 95 caps
22. Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) 31 caps
23. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers) 56 caps