United Rugby Championship: Say hello to Mike Blair, Duncan Weir, Sione Tuipulotu, Jay Z and the DAM Health Stadium
After a soulless season spent in empty stadiums, rugby will reconnect with its fanbase again this evening as the new United Rugby Championship kicks off.
Glasgow Warriors, the first of the Scottish sides in action, face a daunting first match against Ulster in Belfast. Danny Wilson’s side lost 40-15 at the Kingspan last year but hopes are high that the Warriors can make a better fist of things tonight.
Edinburgh, under new coach Mike Blair, play on Saturday, hosting the Scarlets in their freshly christened DAM Health Stadium which should be close to its 7,774 capacity by 3pm. Selling the naming rights to a company which is a provider of Covid-19 testing seems particularly zeitgeisty. The deal, worth over a million pounds over five years, is a more than welcome revenue stream after a season in which the turnstiles failed to click.
The brave new world of the URC should also generate much needed cash, with South Africa’s big four franchises joining the dozen Celtic-Italian Pro14 clubs from last season.
Sixteen teams across five countries and two hemispheres might seem like a hotch-potch but the melting-pot nature of the new competition means a host of different TV deals.
One of the most surprising aspects of the URC is its partnership with Roc Nation, the entertainment agency founded by Jay-Z. It all seems a long way from the early days of professionalism when Scottish clubs travelled by bus to Bridgend and Llanelli to play in the Welsh-Scottish League. The URC is a direct descendant of that competition and the hope is that the tie-up with Roc Nation will help the league tap into a younger audience.
Youthful vigour was the key to Glasgow’s renaissance in the second half of last season when a clutch of gifted fledglings seized their chance. In the absence of their international contingent, Wilson was forced to gamble and it paid off.
In a wretched first half of the campaign, the Warriors lost nine of 12 Pro14 matches and suffered a mauling in Europe at the hands of Exeter Chiefs. But they finished strongly, winning three of their last four games to claim the final spot in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
If last season was a mixed bag for Wilson, it should be remembered that he came into the job in the most trying of circumstances. Covid restrictions and injuries denied him his key assets in a turbulent first campaign in charge.
He’s now had time to put his own stamp on the squad and looks to have recruited well. The loss of Adam Hastings and Huw Jones, to Gloucester and Harlequins respectively, will be felt but Glasgow have sought to replace their creativity while also adding a harder edge.
The only snag is that some of the new recruits have yet to arrive. Argentine pair Domingo Miotti and Seb Cancelliere are on international duty with the Pumas in Australia, while Kiwi full-back Josh McKay is still in New Zealand.
Nevertheless, there are enough new faces to generate optimism among the Warrior Nation, with Scottish-qualified centre Sione Tuipuloto and Australian international back-row Jack Dempsey among the pick of the signings.
Some of the new boys have a familiar look about them and the return of Duncan Weir to mentor/challenge young fly-half Ross Thompson offers a fascinating subplot.
Intriguingly, Wilson has opted for Weir as his starting 10 against Ulster after the 30-year-old impressed in the friendlies against Newcastle and Worcester.
“I just felt over those two pre-season games Duncan edged it,” explained the coach. “Not that Ross is doing anything wrong.”
Wilson has also been a grateful recipient of players apparently unwanted by Edinburgh. Flanker Rory Darge joined at the tail-end of last season and made such an impression you wondered why he had been allowed to leave Murrayfield. Glasgow will hope to work the same magic with Ally Miller and Murray McCallum.
And what of Edinburgh? The arrival of Blair followed the sudden departure of Richard Cockerill after four rollicking years in charge.
Things were never dull under the pugnacious former England hooker who did a grand job of toughening up the capital club and turning them into genuine contenders, certainly in his first three years.
Failure to win play-off matches was his Achilles’ heel and the players had also started to tire of his more autocratic tendencies and limited gameplan.
Blair joins from Gregor Townsend’s Scotland set-up and is expected to borrow heavily from the national coach’s playbook. An adventurous scrum-half who was once shortlisted for World Player of the Year, Blair will look to speed up Edinburgh’s game on their new plastic pitch.
He arrived too late to recruit players of his own and will have to make do with what he inherited. He must also forge on without two of Edinburgh’s Lions after Duhan van der Merwe and Rory Sutherland were lured south by Worcester.
He still has Hamish Watson and also the quicksilver Darcy Graham as well as a clutch of new recruits signed by the departed Cockerill, including dynamic scrum-half Ben Vellacott and Scotland centre James Lang who arrived from Wasps and Harlequins respectively.
Blair is one of Edinburgh’s favourite sons and the supporters will get behind one of their own. Season tickets have been sold in record numbers and there is a sense of relief that the club finally have a stadium they can truly call home.
Nevertheless, expectations will have to be tempered by the presence in the URC of the Bulls, Sharks, Lions and Stormers. South Africa’s big four are a mixed bag but the Bulls in particular will be formidable opponents. Leinster, Munster and Ulster will be as strong as ever and the Scottish clubs will have a fight on their hands just to finish in the top eight and make the play-offs.
They will also be in direct competition with each other to secure a place in next season’s Champions Cup, investing the festive inter-city derbies with even more edge.
It promises to be a fascinating campaign.
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