While all eyes are currently on the upcoming Rugby World Cup in France, fans can also look forward to the United Rugby Championship once this tournament concludes at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis.
Of course, this year’s United Rugby Championship will start a little later this year as a direct result of RWC23, with the action kicking off on October 21st before concluding on June 22nd in 2024.
Munster will kick-off the new season as the defending champions, after they dethroned the defending champions the Stormers with a 19-14 victory on the season finale on May 27th.
But what exactly is the United Rugby Championship, and which teams are likely to challenge in 2023/24? Let’s take a closer look!
What is the United Rugby Championship?
The 2023/24 URC will be the 22nd season of professional Rugby Union competition, which was initially referred to as the ‘Celtic League’ when it was formed back in 2001/02.
This season will follow a familiar format, with 16 teams representing Ireland, Italy, Scotland, South Africa and Wales in a tiered competition.
The tournament then consists of 21 rounds in total, comprising 18 regular season game weeks followed by three consecutive play-off rounds. There are four regional pools in play during the regular season; namely the Irish Shield pool (featuring the four Irish teams), the Welsh Shield pool (featuring the four Welsh teams), the South African Shield pool (featuring the four South African teams) and the Scottish/Italian ‘Azzurri/Blue’ Shield pool (featuring the two Italian and two Scottish sides).
Not only do these pools help to determine who qualifies for the URC knockout stages and eventual final, but they also serve as the primary route for qualification to the coveted European Rugby Champions Cup the following season.
Which Teams Will Compete in 2023/24?
Ultimately, defending champions Munster and 2022/23 winners ‘The Stormers’ (who represent South African rugby) remain key contenders this season, with both sides having looked to improve their playing squads ahead of the new campaign.
Munster have signed three new players and promoted two from their academy so far, with 26-year-old centre Alex Nankivell the first to join in a two-year deal from the Chiefs in New Zealand.
He managed to score 13 tries in 70 appearances for the Chiefs after making his debut in 2017 (ironically against the Stormers), while he also produced a sparkling display by setting up two tries as his team narrowly lost the Super Rugby Pacific final against the Crusaders last year.
Seán O’Brien is another centre who has joined Munster from Exeter Chiefs, with the 25-year-old having played a pivotal role in the Devon side’s journey to the Champions Cup semi-finals last year. Former players and prop John Ryan has also rejoined the club this summer, having spent a season representing both Wasps in England and the Chiefs.
Patrick Campbell and Cian Hurley have been promoted from the Munster Rugby Academy ahead of the new season. The former is an exciting player who can operate at wing or full back, while the 23-year-old Hurley has spent three highly productive years in the academy and will offer an additional option at lock.
While the Stormers have been a little quieter this summer, it has been confirmed that Springbok and former Lions wing Courtnall Skosan will join ahead of the 2023/24 season.
This talented winger has made 12 Test appearances for South Africa, while he has been a free agent after leaving Premiership club Northampton Saints at the end of last season. Now 32, Skosan has also made more than 100 appearances in Super Rugby and the Currie Cup, and there’s no doubt that he’ll add some much-needed experience and quality to the Stormers’ backline.
The Last Word
Ultimately, I’d expect both of these sides to compete aggressively for the United Rugby Championship in 2023/24, although Munster’s recruitment drive may afford them an edge as they look to retain their title.
However, the Stormers have also added a genuinely top-tier player in the form of Courtnall Skosan, while they’ve also retained much of the squad that won the championship as recently as 2021/22.