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United Rugby Championship Heralds a New Era for Club Rugby

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Ulster Rugby will compete alongside 15 teams from South Africa, Scotland, Wales, Italy and Ireland in a new ‘United Rugby Championship’ competition from next season.

The United Rugby Championship will kick off in September 2021 as the top clubs from South Africa (Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls) combine with the Guinness PRO14 to create a world-class 16-team league.

The United Rugby Championship will be bigger, bolder and stronger than its predecessors. Teams from five of rugby’s elite nations – Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales and South Africa will transform the competition into a league of super clubs, which will embrace difference and champion its athletes on their journey with the URC proudly representing all of those involved with the game.

Off the field the United Rugby Championship will strive to provide a platform for our players to tell their stories so that their achievements in sport and society can inspire the next-generation of rugby talent and the sport’s supporters to prove that rugby is a game for all.

This game-changing agreement between SA Rugby and PRO14 Rugby will strengthen their existing partnership and will drive greater growth of the game for the benefit of all 16 teams in the league.

Martin Anayi, CEO of United Rugby Championship, said: “Fans have always asked more of our league and now we are taking it to new heights. The United Rugby Championship will see World Cup winners, icons of the Guinness Six Nations, the Rugby Championship and stars of the British & Irish Lions tour turning up the intensity in an exciting new league format. Since the origins of the Celtic League in 2001, the vision has been to innovate and evolve in order to create a compelling competition which would challenge our players and teams to be at their very best every single week. Their potential has never been in doubt and now we can provide them with the arena to be the very best.

“Forming the United Rugby Championship will begin to reshape the world of club rugby. We are creating a league that embraces and celebrates difference and where the only way to succeed will be to match the skill and intensity of the international game.

“The arrival of South Africa’s elite teams and the removal of fixtures from international match weekends will make our league stronger across the board. We will see heroes taking on heroes every week in iconic locations to create an appeal that will be unmatched in in the world of club rugby.

“We now have a clear purpose and identity that everyone associated with our league can stand behind. We have listened and we have answered the challenge set by our clubs to take this competition to the next level both on and off the field. North and south will now collide on a regular basis and we cannot wait to see who will rise up as the first champions of the United Rugby Championship.”

Jurie Roux, CEO of SA Rugby, said: “South African rugby has for many years imagined a future aligned with northern-hemisphere rugby and this announcement marks the arrival of that vision.

“Our teams will be pitting themselves against the leading clubs from four nations, steeped in rugby tradition and folklore. They’ll do it without having to cross time zones or acclimatise while 100 per cent of matches will kick off in South African prime time.

“This is a watershed moment in South African rugby history, opening new doors and heralding a new and exciting era for our sport.”

Crossing New Horizons in Rugby

This agreement will create a pathway for SA Rugby to become a full shareholder in Pro Rugby Championship (PRC DAC) alongside the Celtic and Italian unions. In a sporting landscape looking towards the post-pandemic future this unification of north and south provides everyone involved in the United Rugby Championship with optimism for prosperous days ahead.

Subject to contract, all teams in the United Rugby Championship will be eligible to qualify for EPCR competitions in time for the 2022/23 season.

In comparison to the Guinness PRO14 structure, the 18-round regular season in the United Rugby Championship will see the return of a single-standing table that will prevent clashes with international weekends and leave little margin for error for those chasing the title. Every game will count in the league which will be further strengthened by an expanded knock-out series that aims to deliver more jeopardy with a full schedule of quarter-finals and semi-finals capped off by a Grand Final played in a destination venue.

The United Rugby Championship will set the stage where the diversity of playing styles, languages and fan cultures will clash across iconic locations in rugby heartlands week after week. The new league will also allow South Africa’s former Super Rugby sides to operate in a common time zone which will help open up greater audiences across the league and increase commercial appeal.

United Rugby Championship League Format

The URC will use one league table to rank the teams who will reach the knock-out stages and compete to reach the title and become the champions.

Fixtures: The regular season of the United Rugby Championship will take place across 18 rounds with each team’s fixtures comprising of six (6) Home AND away fixtures against their regional pool opponents and12 Home OR away fixtures against the remaining teams in the league

Regional pools

Irish Pool: Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster

Welsh Pool: Dragons, Cardiff Rugby, Ospreys, Scarlets

South African Pool: Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls

Italian & Scottish Pool: Benetton Rugby, Edinburgh, Glasgow Warriors, Zebre Rugby Club

Final Series/Play-Offs: One league table will be used to rank teams and after 18 rounds the top eight sides will qualify for the Play-Offs. Teams will be seeded from 1 to 8 and will receive home advantage according to their seeding.

A full round of Quarter-Finals and Semi-Finals will take place to produce two teams who will qualify for the Grand Final.

United Rugby Championship – Champions Cup and Challenge Cup Participation

A total of eight teams from the United Rugby Championship will qualify each season for the following season’s Heineken Champions Cup. The balance of teams will participate in the Challenge Cup.

Subject to the finalisation of contract terms with EPCR, South African teams will be eligible to qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup from the 2022/23 season if they have finished in the United Rugby Championship qualification places from the prior season.

All points won during the URC season will contribute to rankings in the regional pools and the highest-ranking team in each of the four pools will earn a place in the Champions Cup for the following season. This addition to the format is expected to add even greater intensity to these age-old local rivalries.

The remaining four places in the Champions Cup will be awarded to the four highest-ranked teams from the single-standing league table who have not already qualified through the four regional pools.

Source – Ulster Rugby

Champions Cup

Graham Rowntree Confirmed As Next Munster Head Coach

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(Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Munster Rugby and the IRFU are pleased to confirm that Graham Rowntree will be promoted from Forwards Coach to the role of Head Coach from July 1, 2022.

Rowntree will commence the role of Head Coach at the start of the 2022/23 season after signing a two-year deal.

The former England prop made the move to Limerick in October 2019 on completion of his Rugby World Cup coaching duties with Georgia Rugby.

In his third season as Forwards Coach Graham and family have settled well into Limerick life, noting earlier this year, “I have made my thoughts about this club widely known throughout my time so far, and for me and my family it really has been an easy decision, a non-decision if truth be told.

“We’ve put down roots here and have no desire to move anywhere else.”

With an impressive coaching CV and vast experience, Rowntree previously held coaching roles with the British and Irish Lions, England Rugby, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers.

Working closely with the IRFU, the province will advance with next steps in securing the backroom team that will work with Graham from next season as Head Coach Johann van Graan, Senior Coach Stephen Larkham, and Defence Coach JP Ferreira depart the province at the end of June.

IRFU Performance Director, David Nucifora, commented, “I would like to thank the Munster Professional Game Committee for their work and diligence during this process.

“It is important that Munster have someone who understands the unique history and culture of the club and has the experience to maximise the talent in the squad.

“Graham was very impressive throughout this process and demonstrated he has the capabilities to spearhead the next chapter of Munster Rugby.”

On confirmation of the promotion, Graham Rowntree added, “I am hugely honoured to be taking over the role of Head Coach for a club of this calibre, one that means so much to me and my family.

“We have thoroughly enjoyed every moment here and I fortunately get to work with an incredible group of staff and players who share a common goal each day in striving for success for this club.

“I’ve talked about our fantastic supporters before and again at the weekend we stepped off the bus to a huge red welcome in Exeter. Who doesn’t want to be part of that, that’s special!

“I believe we have the established structures in place with the resources and facilities to match and that it will be a smooth transition for the coaching ticket we assemble in ensuring continued development and success for this club.

“Before then I have a role to complete this season and working closely with Johann, Steve, and JP is the immediate focus and priority for now.”

Commenting on the appointment, Munster Rugby CEO Ian Flanagan said, “Graham’s extensive coaching experience and knowledge for the game makes him the perfect candidate to lead this squad forward.

“With Graham stepping up at the start of the new season it will be a seamless and natural progression from the work that has been carried out to-date.

“For now, we will continue our focus on the remainder of this season with Graham supporting Johann and the coaching staff in achieving our goals.”

Munster Rugby Home Fixtures

Saturday, April 16

Champions Cup Round of 16: Munster v Exeter Chiefs, Thomond Park, 3pm; Buy tickets here

Friday, April 29

URC: Munster v Cardiff Rugby, Musgrave Park, 7.35pm; Buy tickets here

Images & Content from Munster Rugby

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6 Nations

Sean O’Brien to retire from rugby

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Image Credit: London Irish

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.”

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URC

Ulster squad selected for Vodacom Bulls clash

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Photo By Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile via Getty Images

The Ulster match-day squad to face Vodacom Bulls at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on Saturday afternoon has been named.

Andrew Warwick will make his 150th appearance for the province as he has been named to start at loosehead prop and will be joined in the front row by Brad Roberts and Marty Moore. Iain Henderson comes into skipper the side at second row, and will partner fellow Irish international, Kieran Treadwell. Jordi Murphy and Nick Timoney come in to start at blindside and openside flanker, with Duane Vermeulen at the base of the scrum at Number Eight.

Mike Lowry is selected to start at full-back, with Ben Moxham and Ethan McIlroy named on the wings. Luke Marshall and James Hume will form the centre partnership while Ian Madigan and Nathan Doak make up the half-back pairing.

The Ulster coaching team has opted for a 6-2 split on the bench, with Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Mick Kearney, Matty Rea and Marcus Rea selected as forward reinforcements. John Cooney and Stewart Moore provide the back line cover.

Ulster team to play Vodacom Bulls, United Rugby Championship Round 14, Saturday 2 April at Loftus Versfeld Stadium, 1pm kick-off (UK / IRE time), live on SuperSport, Premier Sports & URC TV:

(15-9) Mike Lowry, Ben Moxham, James Hume, Luke Marshall, Ethan McIlroy, Ian Madigan, Nathan Doak;

(1-8) Andrew Warwick, Brad Roberts, Marty Moore, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen.

Replacements: Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Mick Kearney, Matty Rea, John Cooney, Marcus Rea, Stewart Moore.  

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