United Rugby Championship: format, dates, South African teams qualifying for ‘Europe’ and what it means for Edinburgh and Glasgow

Plans have been unveiled for the United Rugby Championship, a new competition that will feature the four South African Super Rugby franchises and 12 clubs from the Guinness Pro14. The 16-team league, forged from an agreement between PRO14 Rugby and SA Rugby, replaces the Pro14 and will start in September. Here’s how it will work and what it means for Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors:

League format explained

The United Rugby Championship is a competition involving 16 teams across five territories but there is an element of regionalisation in the format.

Although final positions will be decided by a single league table, teams are also divided into four regional pools, as follows:.

The new United Rugby Championship is due to kick off on September 24.

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

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

The 16-team United Rugby Championship will feature four clubs each from Ireland, South Africa and Wales and two each from Scotland and Italy.

There will be 18 rounds of fixtures in the regular season. They comprise six home and away fixtures played by each team in their pool. The remaining 12 games will be made from an even number of home or away games against the other teams in the league.

So Edinburgh and Glasgow will each play each other twice and each play Benetton and Zebre twice. The Scottish pro sides will then face the other 12 teams once only.

The play-offs

After 18 rounds of games, the top eight teams will qualify for the quarter-finals, followed by semi-finals and a final. Teams will be seeded from 1 to 8 and will receive home advantage according to their seeding for these fixtures.

The DHL Stormers are one of four South African sides who will be competing in the United Rugby Championship.

So the quarter-final fixtures would be: 1st v 8th, 2nd v 7th, 3rd v 6th, 4th v 5th.

The URC Grand Final venue will be decided later.

No clashes with international weekends

The format means that, compared to the Pro14, the number of regular season games is reduced from 21 to 18.

The benefit of this is that there is no crossover with international weekends. That will be a huge boost for Edinburgh and Glasgow who have the biggest concentration of international players in their squad.

During the Six Nations and autumn Test window the Scottish sides lose the bulk of their first XVs to the national side. The problem was particularly acute this season with the extended autumn programme and the Covid rules which made it difficult for players to leave the Scotland ‘bubble’ to return to the clubs.

Organisers hope that by removing the crossover with international weekends clubs will be able to field their strongest teams more often, with the aim of driving up standards.

Why regional pools?

Organisers say the regional pools are “designed to amplify rivalries and competitiveness among nations”.

Put more simply, it means home and away derbies are preserved. They will also cut down on travel, an important consideration when trying to introduce a new cross-border competition in the midst of a global pandemic.

The Irish, South African and Welsh teams all form natural pools of four but with only two Scottish and two Italian teams in the competition they find themselves lumped in together.

It means there will be only two Edinburgh-Glasgow league derbies next season and it remains to be seen if the 1872 Cup will revert to being settled over two games instead of three.

The winner of each of the for regional pools will automatically qualify for the following season’s Heineken Champions Cup.

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Qualifying for ‘Europe’

This is arguably the most radical change. The door is now open for the South African teams to qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup, Europe’s premier club rugby competition.

Eight teams from the United Rugby Championship will go into the following season’s Champions Cup. As noted above, the winner of each pool will qualify, followed by the next highest ranked teams in the main league table.

So from the 2022-23 season, South African teams will be able to enter the Champions Cup if they have finished in the qualification places in the URC standings in 2021-22. Regional pool mechanics will ensure at least one team from South Africa will qualify.

How are URC home or away fixtures decided?

Organisers say this will be based on a number of factors, including: stadium availability, club preference, player welfare, broadcast rights and the accommodation of mini‐tours involving fixtures with South African clubs.

Each year, the home or away fixture will alternate much like it does in the Guinness Six Nations, so if Edinburgh played away to the DHL Stormers in Cape Town during the 2021-22 season, then they would host the Stormers the following season and the fixture would continue to alternate on that basis.

What does new competition mean for Scottish clubs?

Having more access to their Scotland players is a huge boost for Richard Cockerill and Danny Wilson, the coaches of Edinburgh and Glasgow respectively. The season just ended has been hugely trying for both due to the extended international season and Covid restrictions.

Theoretically, Edinburgh and Glasgow should also benefit from being in a regional pool with the two Italian teams, traditionally the weakest sides in the Pro14. However, Benetton’s recent win over Glasgow shows it would be wrong to underestimate them.

One potential downside is that the involvement of four top South African sides will make qualifying for the Champions Cup more difficult for the Scottish clubs.

Fixture dates for 2021-22 season

Round 1: Weekend 24/25/26 September

Round 2: 1/2/3 October

Round 3: 8/9/10 October

Round 4: 15/16/17 October

Round 5: 22/23/24 October

Round 6: 29/30/31 October

Round 7: 3/4/5 December

Round 8: 24/25/26 December

Round 9: 31 December 1/2 January

Round 10: 7/8/9 January

Round 11: 28/29/30 January

Round 12: 18/19/20 January

Round 13: 4/5/6 March

Round 14: 25/26/27 March

Round 15: 1/2/3 April

Round 16: 22/23/24 April

Round 17: 29/20/21 April

Round 18: 20/21/22 May

URC Quarter-finals: 3/4/5 June

URC Semi-finals 10/11/12 June

URC Final: 23/24/25 June

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