If you follow the United Rugby Championship, you may have noticed significant changes. The tournament underwent a major overhaul for the 2021/22 season, rebranding itself as the URC and expanding to accommodate four South African teams.
The revamped format generated controversy, with some embracing the change while others, like former Wales captain Sam Warburton, questioned the decision. However, South Africa had a remarkable debut season, culminating in an all-South African final and the Stormers claiming their first title. The future of the URC seemed promising.
However, in 2023, the URC appeared to be overshadowed by the Heineken Champions Cup, raising questions about its unity. Despite this, the previous year’s tournament presented a different picture. Statistics revealed that the inaugural season broke viewing records, with a total of 34.6 million fans tuning in to watch the 18-week season.
Martin Anayi, CEO of the United Rugby Championship, regarded these numbers as a positive sign for the URC, stating, “provide a terrific pulse check for the United Rugby Championship.” Reflecting on the addition of South Africa, he further commented, “Ultimately, the excitement on the pitch coupled with the intrigue of the big four South African teams joining the league has provided a great draw.” Anayi expressed confidence in the strong foundation for the URC to build upon.
However, the 2022/23 season presented contrasting outcomes. Zebra Parma, an Italian team, experienced a winless season, finishing at the bottom of the league, while Leinster only lost two matches, one being the semi-final against Munster. Martin Anayi acknowledged the closed nature of the league as a potential factor, stating, “There is a natural filter system to relegation, one team goes down and the team that comes up is full of expectation because they have won the league below; we don’t have that in a closed league.” He emphasized the need to assist teams like Zebre and the Italian Federation in becoming more competitive, suggesting a draft system that would bring in players from other unions.
Additionally, the timing of the URC season appears to contribute to the challenges it faces. The competition for viewership overlaps with two major tournaments: the Heineken Champions Cup and Premiership Rugby. The scheduling of the URC in relation to these events poses a challenge. Anayi believes aligning the URC with the Six Nations would be ideal, stating, “it’s more about aligning the seasons rather than saying where they should or shouldn’t play.”
Whether this proposed solution can address the problem or if the URC would struggle against the Six Nations is yet to be determined.
Writer @ Rugby365.com
Tom can regularly be found writing about the United Rugby Championship here.