United Rugby Championship awards: Leinster, Tom Stewart and Sharks amongst our recipients

Jared Wright
URC awards

Following the conclusion of the United Rugby Championship (URC) regular-season, we bring you Planet Rugby’s awards for the 2022/23 campaign.

There is of course the knockout stages still to come, but here’s our gongs for the season just gone as the outstanding Leinster steamrolled to top spot.

Team of the season: Leinster

There was only one winner here. Leo Cullen’s charges won their opening 15 URC games before stumbling to a draw against the Stormers in round 16. Up until the final round of the regular season, they hadn’t tasted defeat, before a young side faced a fully stocked Bulls in Pretoria and succumbed to a first loss.

It was a typically ruthless season for the stubborn Dubliners who just refused to be beaten and marched into the play-offs. Even with their heaviest defeat ever to the Bulls, Leinster boasted a points difference of 217, 41 more than second-placed Ulster and were 11 points clear at the summit of the standings.

Wooden spoon: Zebre Parma

The best thing about Zebre Parma’s season is that it is over. It’s the brutal truth for the Italians, who lost every single URC game this term. Last season wasn’t much better, as they won just once in 18 appearances.

2022/23, though, was a worrying leap backwards. Last season they conceded 630 points over the campaign, an average of 35 points per game, but that figure ballooned to 734 or 40.8 points per match. They did improve their scoring, averaging 19 points per game, up from 18, but there is still a nine-point deficit between their attack and defence.

Player of the season: Tom Stewart

Talk about taking your chance with both hands.

Stewart has been one of the big success stories of the URC season as he finished the regular season with a staggering 16 tries.

The hooker has not just solely relied on mauls for his scores as he’s popped up out wide and has shown the future at hooker is bright at Ulster.

He’s putting serious pressure on the more established Rob Herring and is already catching the attention of Ireland head coach Andy Farrell.

Overachievers: Ulster

A close call between the Irish provinces as Connacht did well to claim a place in the play-offs and a probable Champions Cup spot, but Ulster edge them for the award.

While many expected Ulster to reach the play-offs, few would have had them as high as second.

Dan McFarland’s side started the season extremely well but hit a mid-season slump, losing four games between December and February, which cost many of their stars a call-up to the Ireland squad.

They dusted themselves off in March and won their remaining four fixtures in a row to finish the season with 13 victories and five losses.

They failed to score four or more tries only twice this season, a stat matched only by the Stormers.

With the second-best defence in the competition and firing attack, Ulster will be a real threat in the play-offs.

An honourable mention has to go to Glasgow Warriors, who have been sublime since Franco Smith took over the side.

Underachievers: Welsh regions and the Sharks

Take your pick of the Welsh regions. Collectively they were victorious in 24 of their 72 matches for a win ratio of 33 per cent.

Remove the 12 Welsh Shield fixtures; that ratio plummets to 24 per cent.

It does not look like next season will get any better for the Welsh sides as several star players ahead abroad, further weakening the teams.

While the four Welsh regions are some of the worst-funded sides in the United Rugby Championship, a 24 per cent winning ratio is well below what a proud rugby nation like Wales should expect.

On the flipside, the Sharks are arguably the best-funded South African outfit and barring an incredible play-off run without Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth; they will miss out on Champions Cup rugby next season.

The Durbanites wasted opportunities throughout the competition, and the 19-point collapse to draw with Munster in the final round of the regular season was a microcosm of their season.

Underrated star of the season: Jean Kleyn

Consistently excellent for Munster this season, Kleyn can count himself unfortunate not to have been involved in the Ireland set-up, as his performances have never waivered in the red jersey.

A real workhorse who is a willing carrier, strong defender and solid at the set-piece, he’s stood up while RG Snyman and later Tadhg Beirne have been sidelined as this award is hugely deserved.

Biggest shock: Cardiff nilling Sharks in Durban

That 35-0 win at Kings Park raised more than a few eye-brows as Cardiff stunned the Sharks in a four-try victory in November.

The result ultimately cost Sean Everitt his head coach role at the South African outfit as Neil Powell came in as his replacement soon after.

But all credit to Cardiff for beating a Sharks side that, while not at full strength, did boast a handful of big names and were of course on Durban soil.

Best comeback: Munster

To finish in fifth position after the struggles they endured in the early season is an outstanding return from Munster.

A loss at the Dragons was the lowest point for the province but they’ve stuck to their processes under the new coaching regime and it’s paid dividends, not just in terms of results but their high-energy playing style as well.

They shot up the standings and it’s somewhat poetic that their comeback at the Sharks last week sees them take this gong.

Best back signing: Marius Louw

There were some clear standouts for the best backline signing of the season, including Connacht’s Byron Ralston, Duhan van der Merwe’s return to Edinburgh and Munster snapping up Antoine Frisch, but there was one clear winner in Louw’s move from Durban to Johannesburg to join the Lions.

Louw made a tremendous impact in his first season and became such a pivotal part of the backline that he was captaining the side by the end of the season.

There has never really been doubts over his quality, but he lived up to the potential he promised at the Sharks.

It was an extremely beneficial signing for both parties as Louw started all 18 fixtures for the Lions in the number 12 jumper, with only teammate Quan Horn and Bulls lock Ruan Nortje playing more minutes than him the entire season.

He is firmly a fan favourite on the highveld, and rightfully so.

Best forward signing: Vaea Fifita

He’s just a joy to watch. New Zealand’s loss is the Scarlets’ gain as Fifita has enjoyed an outstanding campaign for his new side.

The former Hurricanes man is an incredible athlete and the sight of him galloping on the rugby field – often outpacing backs – has been a feature of this season.

That non-try against Glasgow Warriors earlier this month was classic Fifita and we hope to see more of the same in 2023/24.

Stat leaders

Top points scorer: Manie Libbok (167)
Top try scorer: Tom Stewart (16)
Top try assists: Manie Libbok (11)
Top carries: Bill Mata (208)
Top metres: Clayton Blommetjies (857)
Top metres in contact: Elrigh Louw (247)
Top defenders beaten: Rohan Janse van Rensburg (38)
Top clean breaks: David Kriel (20)
Top offloads: Johnny McNicholl (24)
Most passes: John Cooney (819)
Most kicks in play: Jack Carty (179)
Most kick metres: Jack Carty (6795)
Most lineouts won on own throw: Ruan Nortje (91)
Most lineout steals: Niall Murray (16)
Lineout percentage: Johann Grobbelaar (95%)
Most tackles: Conor Oliver (215)
Tackle percentage: James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Cyle Brink, Sebastian Negri, Filippo Alongi, Gareth Milasinovich, Gregor Brown, Emile van Heerden (100%)
Most turnovers: Thomas Young, Marco van Staden (both 17)

READ MORE: Owen Williams: Fly-half re-commits and looks to push Ospreys to be ‘best team that we can be’