United Rugby Championship: Five big questions ahead of the 2022/23 season including can the regions finally lift the gloom in Wales?

David Skippers
Ospreys back Gareth Anscombe

Planet Rugby has settled on the five big questions that we feel are on many rugby followers’ lips ahead of the upcoming United Rugby Championship season.

Is there anyone who can repeat the Bulls’ heroics against Leinster?

It was a huge shock when the great Irish province went down to the Pretoria-based outfit at home in the semi-finals last season. Jake White has done a magnificent job since taking the reins in 2020, making a team with, to be perfectly frank, little star power in comparison to other sides consistently compete against the best in South Africa and the United Rugby Championship. They punched above their size once again against Leinster in the last-four contest and only added weight to the suggestion that Leo Cullen’s men don’t fare well against big packs.

The Dubliners struggled at the breakdown, finding themselves being turned over at will, and failed to put the Bulls’ defence under enough pressure throughout. That came two weeks after Leinster succumbed to mammoth La Rochelle forwards in the Champions Cup final in what was a chastening defeat. Leinster are effectively the Ireland international side, which evidently means they’re very difficult to stop, but they have struggled when big, powerful teams have disrupted their rhythm. Cullen will have learnt plenty, however, and no doubt they will be determined to right the wrongs from last season.

How will the South Africans fare competing on two fronts?

The South African teams exceeded expectations in the first season of the United Rugby Championship. Despite poor starts to the campaign from all four teams, the final saw the Bulls face eventual champions, the Stormers. This season there is the additional challenge of European competition with the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks in the Champions Cup and the Lions in the Challenge Cup. Squad depth will be absolutely critical for these teams, with the Bulls and Sharks best-placed after a plethora of signings ahead of this term. The Stormers have also added to their winning squad but not with the big names like their counterparts have. However, on paper, it could be argued that the Cape-based side had a weaker squad than the Bulls and Sharks last season and then went on to win regardless.

On the other hand, the Lions have had to deal with an exodus of players, including last season’s captain Burger Odendaal, Wandise Simelane and Vincent Tshituka, effectively removing the team’s spine. It will be an uphill battle for the Johannesburg side as the squad will be stretched in the URC, never mind the additional pressure of the Challenge Cup.

Fighting on two fronts will undoubtedly be a hurdle for the South African sides, but that was said at the beginning of last season. It will be a massive achievement for any of these teams to bring home silverware.

Can the regions finally lift the gloom in Wales?

Still fiscally underpowered and, ultimately, with weaker squads than the top Irish and South African sides, ‘probably not’ is the answer to the question, but there has been some smart recruitment by a few of the Welsh teams. Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau, Thomas Young and Lopeti Timani will bring plenty of quality to Cardiff’s ranks, while Vaea Fifita is a smart addition by the Scarlets.

The busiest has been the Dragons, who by bringing in the likes of JJ Hanrahan, Bradley Roberts, Sean Lonsdale and Sio Tomkinson have made some astute additions. They aren’t the star names of Faletau, Williams and Fifita but they will significantly improve the depth of Dean Ryan’s men. However, they are starting from the lowest base of all the regions and a massive development is unlikely.

The Ospreys, Scarlets and Cardiff do have the quality in their first 23 to compete with the best sides in the URC, and potentially challenge for the play-offs, but they don’t have the depth of the better teams. Even so, those three can’t be discounted from the top-eight race and if Wales were to get one, maybe two, into the end of season reckoning, that would be counted as a success.

Will Franco Smith return the glory days to Glasgow?

The former Italy head coach has a tough assignment on his hands as he looks to put back the smiles on the faces of Glasgow Warriors supporters following an underwhelming campaign in the inaugural United Rugby Championship season. Glasgow have always been competitive at this level and it must be remembered that they were crowned PRO12 champions during a memorable 2014/15 season.

That seemed a very long time ago, however, as they’ve failed to reach those heights in subsequent campaigns and finished last season with a whimper. The Warriors sneaked into last season’s play-offs via the back door but were in for a rude awakening as they suffered a 76-14 defeat against a rampant Leinster outfit in their quarter-final at the RDS Arena. That humiliating loss resulted in Danny Wilson being replaced by Smith, who will be taking charge of the side on a two-year contract.

The jury is still out on the former Springbok, however, as he comes into this job following a stint as the Italian Rugby Federation’s head of high performance. This, after losing all 13 of his Tests as Italy’s head coach in 2020 and 2021. Smith will have to hit the ground running although the Warriors have been boosted by the return of Scotland duo Huw Jones (Harlequins) and Allan Dell (London Irish) while JP du Preez (Sale Sharks) is also an astute signing.

Another season of Italian disappointment or can they compete?

Italy’s two teams – Benetton and Zebre Parma – have been perennial strugglers in the PRO12 and PRO14 and the inaugural URC campaign proved no different as they were once again amongst the also-rans in the 2021/22 tournament. Since 2011, Italian clubs have joined their Irish, Scottish and Welsh counterparts but neither Benetton, Aironi – who participated in the 2010/11 season – and Zebre Parma have flattered to deceive and have seldom finished amongst the frontrunners in the competition.

Once again, they will be competing alongside Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors for the Scottish/Italian Shield and during the 2021/22 campaign the Italian sides battled to be hold their own against their Scottish counterparts. In the end, Edinburgh finished at the top of the group on 54 points with Glasgow Warriors next best with 50 points amassed while Benetton ended 15 points adrift in third place and Zebre came in last with a paltry nine points. That was also Zebre’s position in the overall standings while Benetton finished in 13th position.

The latter side have proven to be more competitive over the years and last year they showed that have the ability to do well against the more fancied sides when they sprung a major surprise by winning the Rainbow Cup. Benetton have bolstered their ranks by signing the likes of Sam Hidalgo-Clyne (Exeter Chiefs), Marcus Watson (Wasps) and Henry Stowers (Manu Pasifika) while Jacques du Toit (Bath), Joshua Furno (Bourg-en-Bresse) Joey Caputo (Benetton) and Kobus van Wyk (Unattached) are amongst a host of new players who have joined Zebre-Parma.

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