United Rugby Championship: Five bold predictions including the top try-scorer, title winners and underachievers

David Skippers
United Rugby Championship predictions

Ahead of the start of the 2022/23 United Rugby Championship (URC) season, we delve into some of the big and perhaps surprising stories that could transpire in the new campaign.

Tougher times for South African sides

After the South African sides gave a good account of themselves in the inaugural URC – with the Stormers and Bulls contesting the final and the Sharks reaching the semi-finals – we expect things to be a little tougher for them this season. The three aforementioned teams will be competing in the European Champions Cup, while the fourth South African outfit, the Lions, will participate in the Challenge Cup alongside the Cheetahs.

Although playing in those tournaments will be financially beneficial to the South African teams, their depth will be severely tested as apart from the URC, they will also be expected to field teams in the Currie Cup which will also be taking place during those cup competitions and the URC. Earlier this year, both the URC and Currie Cup were played at the same time and it proved difficult for the Stormers, Sharks and Lions in the latter tournament as those three provinces’ sides finished in the bottom three positions of the domestic competition.

So, this year a more difficult task awaits the South African teams and the likes of the Stormers, Bulls, Sharks and Lions will find it even tougher to do a balancing act as they will be determined to show that they belong in such prestigious company in tournaments like the Champions and Challenge Cup. With those competitions set to be added to their schedule, the Currie Cup will be of even lesser significance for the South African outfits and it could also mean that they don’t prioritise the URC, which could see those teams sliding down the table in the competition.

Ulster to kick on and claim the title

Over the years, the Northern Irish province have earned a reputation for being the nearly men of the European game, after coming close to attaining honours on several occasions, but we reckon the 2022/23 season will be a fruitful one for Dan McFarland and his troops.

The Ulstermen were excellent last season and came desperately close to upsetting the Stormers in their semi-final in Cape Town, with only a late conversion kick from the home side’s fly-half Manie Libbok ending their dreams of title honours. Although their pre-season preparations have not gone according to plan – last Friday’s friendly against Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun Stadium was cancelled due to the passing of Queen Elizabeth II – Ulster have a strong squad and although they have lost the likes of Sean Reidy (Counties Manukau) and Bradley Roberts (Dragons), they have acquired the services of former All Blacks prop Jeffery Toomaga-Allen and exciting flanker Sean Reffell from Premiership sides Wasps and Saracens respectively.

They will lose nine players to the Emerging Ireland tour to South Africa, which takes place in late September, but exciting outside back Robert Baloucoune is the only one of that group with international experience. McFarland has a core group of players who showed last season that they can mix it with the best teams in the competition and they have a good mix of a strong pack of forwards and an exciting backline. They will still be able to call upon experienced heads like captain Iain Henderson, John Cooney, Billy Burns, Duane Vermeulen, Rob Herring, Stuart McCloskey Craig Gilroy and Jacob Stockdale, who will all be crucial to the cause as they aim to take the title during this campaign.

Wes Goosen to finish as top try-scorer

Edinburgh did a good piece of business when they acquired Goosen’s services from Super Rugby Pacific outfit the Hurricanes ahead of the 2022/23 URC campaign. Since making his debut for the Wellington-based franchise in 2016, the South African-born flyer has become a mainstay for them at Super Rugby level and was a genuine attacking threat in that competition.

Edinburgh brought the 26-year-old into their ranks as a replacement for Argentina’s Ramiro Moyano, who retired earlier this year, and he will hope to hit the ground running at the Scottish capital outfit, who have become a competitive side under the guidance of head coach Mike Blair.

They possess plenty of star quality out wide with other world class wings like Argentina’s Emiliano Boffelli and the Scottish duo of Darcy Graham and Damien Hoyland also in their squad.

Although that means Goosen is not guaranteed a place in Edinburgh’s starting line-up, he is a classy player who knows his way to the try-line. The former New Zealand U20 representative has shone while playing alongside the likes Ardie and Julian Savea, Jordie and Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara and Ngani Laumape at the Hurricanes and if his Edinburgh team-mates create try-scoring opportunities for him, he could walk off with the URC’s top try-scoring award.

Dragons to finish at the bottom of the table

Italian clubs Zebre and Benetton are usually the favourites to finish at the bottom of the standings in this competition and although Zebre were the wooden spoonists in last year’s inaugural URC, we feel they can do well enough to pip the Dragons in avoiding that unwanted title next season. Despite being predicted to bring up the rear in the URC, both Italian clubs showed signs of improvement in the inaugural URC tournament.

Benetton have delivered competitive performances for some time now and after winning the PRO14 Rainbow Cup last year – by beating the Bulls – they were also competitive in the URC where they finished in 13th position in the 16-team competition, with Cardiff, Dragons and Zebre behind them. However, with the next generation of Italian youngsters, who impressed during this year’s Six Nations, coming through this year the Italians should offer stronger resistance.

Meanwhile, Dragons have bolstered their ranks by signing players like Roberts (Ulster), JJ Hanrahan (Clermont), Rhodri Jones (Ospreys), Sio Tomkinson (Highlanders), Rob Evans (Scarlets) although they also lost the likes of Jonah Holmes (Ealing Trailfinders), Jordan Olowofela (Leicester Tigers), Adam Warren (Llandovery) and Dan Baker (Aberavon), which means they will still be fighting to avoid that wooden spoon.

Munster to struggle under Graham Rowntree

The former England prop has been named as Johann van Graan’s successor and although it’s an exciting appointment, Rowntree could well find the going tough in his first season as head coach. The 51-year-old was promoted from within the Munster ranks, after serving as their forwards coach for three seasons, and insisted that he felt the time was right for him to take the next step in his post-playing rugby career.

Rowntree has, of course, had plenty of experience as a coach in high profile positions with England, Leicester Tigers the British & Irish Lions – as well as his previous role at Munster – however none of those were where he had the responsibility of being the man in charge. He’s been joined by assistant coaches Mike Prendergast (attack), Andi Kyriacou (forwards) and Denis Leamy (defence), who should give good support.

And while all those appointments have been well received, it will be interesting to see if the gamble to go with someone as head coach who hasn’t been in a similar position before pays off, especially with Munster attempting to rebuild after a disappointing previous tenure under Van Graan which often received criticism. Munster’s rivals all made positive strides last season so the pressure is on to turn things around.

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