It may be that other events have overshadowed its build-up, or because last season’s Welsh contribution was extremely modest, but with little fanfare the United Rugby Championship is back this weekend. The summer break has sometimes appeared long and disjointed, but Daniel Parker has tied it all together in one very helpful preview. Thanks, Dan.
After what feels like a long summer break, the United Rugby Championship returns this weekend.
The pick of the opening round matches is the Loughor Bridge derby between the Ospreys and the Scarlets – a tie which should set the early tone of the new campaign for Wales’ two best-performing regions last term.
Elsewhere, the freshly-rebranded Dragons RFC kick-off their season with a challenging away trip to Edinburgh, while the artists once known as Cardiff Blues (Cardiff Rugby) face a stern home tie against Munster.
All four Welsh sides will be hoping for considerable – if not drastic – improvement this term: another season with no Welsh region in the URC’s top eight league positions would be a disaster.
So how are the fretful four shaping up ahead of the big kick-off this weekend?
Last season in a nutshell: After the dust had settled on a controversial rebrand (which is still a justifiable cause of irritation in mid-Glamorgan) Cardiff Rugby endured a fairly miserable 2021-22.
Any positives from the campaign – which included some spirited home showings in Europe, and the emergence of a crop of talented youngsters across the park – were offset by some truly dire performances.
Any lingering demons from the final day 69-21 thrashing by Benetton will need to have been firmly exorcised by 3.05pm on Saturday.
Star signing: As statements of intent go, the signing of Taulupe Faletau from Bath is hard to top.
🗣 “I am looking forward to coming back to Wales to play my rugby, and I know it will feel good to be back home.”
Full story 👇https://t.co/1UkhpT9Seb
— Cardiff Rugby (@Cardiff_Rugby) November 5, 2021
The man of Gwent’s decision to look a little further down the M4 from his old haunt was a real boon for Cardiff, who have signed a player who looks back to his imperious best ahead of his 32nd year.
The Wales and Lions legend will undoubtedly be managed carefully ahead of next year’s World Cup, but should excel (as he always has done). Oh, and that Liam Williams isn’t bad either.
Young gun to watch: Theo Cabango – brother of Swansea City and Wales defender Ben – was one of the real finds of the 2021-22 campaign.
One of the paciest wingers to grace the Arms Park since Nigel Walker, Cabango has good feet and an eye for a line-break from deep.
The 20-year-old is expected to miss the first few games of the season with a shoulder injury, but could well be on Wayne Pivac’s radar once he re-laces his boots.
Point to prove: There are quite a few candidates here. Ellis Jenkins, who faces yet another recovery from injury as well the new challenge of fatherhood; Seb Davies, who was used rather haphazardly by Wayne Pivac in the Six Nations; Thomas Young, who will be desperate to prove he can cut the mustard back home in Wales; and Shane Lewis-Hughes, who has been cast adrift from the national set-up after emerging onto the scene in 2020.
The Ferndale product will have his work cut out to force himself back into the reckoning, but has the advantage of being a specialist blindside flanker in a squad replete with sevens.
Coach’s corner: After a pretty unhappy return to Welsh rugby last year, Aberdare’s Dai Young will need to move quickly to stamp his authority on a star-studded squad this term.
His Cynon Valley comrade, forwards coach T. Rhys Thomas, will have work to do in fine-tuning the set-piece too: Cardiff were actually Wales’ best scrummaging side last year, but won fewer line-outs than any other team in the URC.
Backs coach Richie Rees will be under pressure to get the best out of a rear-guard peppered with international quality.
Prospects: With an electrifying backs division in tow and huge strength in depth in the back-row, Cardiff fans can surely expect a better showing this year.
If the Arms Park outfit can find a way to cope with star absences during the international breaks, they could well be a force to be reckoned with.
Last season in a nutshell: Duw, it was hard. Two league wins and none at all at Rodney Parade tells a story in itself.
He may have moved upstairs to the director of rugby post ahead of the new campaign, but many Dragons fans will feel Dean Ryan is fortunate to still have a job at all after last season.
The ‘RFC’ rebrand over the summer (which noticeably avoided picking a side in the age-old Gwent v Newport hoedown) has been generally well-received, although only time will tell if the re-named club can fully win over the hearts and minds of more Gwent Valleys supporters and realise its massive potential.
Star signings: Dragons’ chairman David Buttress has overseen a busy summer in the transfer market, with a clutch of highly-rated Welsh-qualified players making the journey across the Severn Bridge (Max Clark, George Nott and Sean Lonsdale) to join overseas signings Sio Tompkinson and JJ Hanrahan.
Prop idols Rob Evans and Rhodri Jones (heading east from the Scarlets and Ospreys respectively) could be the most consequential, though.
Dragons have signed Clermont Auvergne’s Irish fly-half JJ Hanrahan on a “long-term” deal from next season 🏉
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) February 15, 2022
Despite representing a region with arguably the proudest front-row tradition in Wales, the Dragons have long lacked strength-in-depth at the business end of the scrum. Evans and Jones – both looking to add to their tally of Wales caps – should fill the gap.
Young guns to watch: The 20-year-old stand-off Will Reed looks a real find. The Newport RFC talent burst onto the regional picture at the end of last season with bags of natural skill, the ability to ignite a back-line, and a remarkably cool head on his shoulders.
He will have to battle hard for the 10 jersey this year against Sam Davies, JJ Hanrahan, and Angus O’Brien, who returns to Gwent after a stint with the Scarlets.
Elsewhere in the backline, Aneurin Owen will only continue to grow in stature – and Wayne Pivac could do with some new blood in his options at centre.
Point to prove: Aaron Wainwright can feel aggrieved not to have been given more game time for Wales over the last two seasons, though he now faces increasingly intense competition for his place at regional and international level.
If he can hold down a starting berth he’ll show what he can do – although cementing a place in a Rodney Parade back-row containing the likes of Talywain terror Taine Basham, Ross Moriarty, Harrison Keddie (arguably last season’s stand out Dragons performer) and Ollie Griffiths (who had the fifth-best turnover rate of any URC player last season) will be no mean feat.
Ashton Hewitt will also look to return from injury with a bang, although he now founds himself firmly behind Jared Rosser and Rio Dyer in the pecking order on the wing.
And with Wales selectors yet to definitively nail down a successor for Ken Owens at hooker, the upcoming campaign could represent one last chance for Newbridge’s Elliot Dee to reinstate himself as the heir apparent – it’ll be a big ask, though.
Coach’s corner: Dai Flanagan steps into the head coach role this season, with Dean Ryan moving to the director of rugby position.
Putting aside questions of where accountability will ultimately lie, there will be immediate pressure on Flanagan to improve Dragons’ faltering attack: only whipping boys Zebre Parma scored fewer tries than the Men of Gwent last season.
Forwards coaches Mefin Davies and Luke Narraway will need to improve their charges’ discipline this season too: the Dragons conceded a whopping 221 penalties last season, and committed 41 scrummaging offences.
Defence coach Simon Cross had a more positive 2021/22 campaign to reflect on: the Dragons would have finished third in the URC if points were weighted on the number of successful tackles made.
Prospects: Dragons fans are well accustomed to new season optimism: things even looked bright last year until a superb away win at Connacht proved to be a red herring.
Isn’t it finally time for Welsh rugby’s sleeping giant to awaken, though?
With back-row riches and a strengthened playing squad at Flanagan’s disposal, the Dragons should at least improve significantly on last season.
Last season in a nutshell: The Ospreys were Wales’ best-performing side last season, winning the inaugural URC Welsh Shield.
Long-time fans of the West Glamorgan region might have winced a bit at the photos of the squad celebrating the mini-triumph, though: it’s hard to imagine any of the ‘Galacticos’ era players of the late noughties popping corks over what was ultimately a ninth-placed league finish.
Ospreylians will expect more from their team this season, especially with a side that now has a settled look to it.
There were plenty of positives last term though, not least in a back-row which contained two of the URC’s turnover kings in Jac Morgan and Morgan Morris.
Adam Beard also grew in stature as a leader and line-out pincher extraordinaire; whilst seasoned heads Alex Cuthbert, Dan Lydiate and Gareth Anscombe rediscovered their confidence.
Star summer signing: In one of the quietest summers in the region’s history, the only new addition to the ranks at the Swansea.com Stadium is fly-half Jack Walsh.
The Florida-born Australian joins from Exeter Chiefs, and is primarily expected to provide cover for experienced heads Gareth Anscombe and Stephen Myler at stand-off.
🏉 Young Fly-Half, Jack Walsh, to join @Ospreys at the end of the current season on a two-year deal!
All the best for the future Jack! 👊
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) May 4, 2022
Young guns to watch: 2022/23 could be a break-through season for Joe Hawkins, with the Ystalyfera product having already proved himself to be indispensable for Wales at age-grade level.
The dynamic 20-year-old centre needs a regular run of games this year to aid his progress, as does the fleet-footed and powerful Keiran Williams, who has looked on the cusp of stardom for a few years now.
Point to prove: It feels strange to devote this category to a man who in almost every sense has no point to prove to anybody – he has done his country and region proud for over a decade now – but here goes.
Much like the scene in 1990s kids’ classic Jumanji, where Robin Williams’ character reappears after decades of hibernation in a board game to reflect on a world that has altered irrevocably in his absence, Justin Tipuric returns to the fold from injury this year, facing a drastically-changed Welsh back-row landscape.
Where once he stood a blue-capped head and shoulders above the chasing pack, there are now a host of young contenders waiting in the wings for his red jersey: Taine Basham, Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell and regional counterpart Harri Deaves to name just a few.
Tipuric, who is sporting some impressive locks this season, will need to find some extra gas in the tank this to see off his challengers.
And you wouldn’t bet against him doing it with aplomb.
Coach’s corner: Toby Booth will feel pretty pleased with how last season transpired from a coach’s perspective; not least as the Ospreys were the best-disciplined side in the URC, conceding the fewest penalties of any side in the league.
There’s room for improvement in other areas though. Forwards coach Duncan Jones (the softly-spoken blonde half of the legendary ‘Hair Bears’ duo for club and country) will be particularly keen to sharpen things up in the scrum.
The Ospreys won the lowest percentage of their own scrums of any URC team last term.
Improving that platform will be critical to boosting an attack which has also faltered: the region made the lowest number of clean breaks in the league in 2022, and gained the fewest metres with ball in hand.
Skills coach Richard Fussell, a revered regional full-back at the Dragons and Ospreys in his day, will have been hard at work over the summer in that department.
Prospects: Difficult to call. Ideally, the Ospreys would aim to be more competitive with the Irish regions and South African provinces this season.
At the same time, a lack of new personnel over the summer leaves the region susceptible to injuries – and may leave a compact squad reliant on development players during international breaks.
With that being said, the men in black are gifted with youngsters who can step up to the plate, and Booth clearly feels he’s got the right formula in place.
Last season in a nutshell: The Scarlets will have been disappointed with how the 2021/22 season played out: a mediocre league campaign led to a 10th place URC finish, and they were found badly wanting in clashes with big guns in the league and a short-lived foray in Europe.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though: fly-half Sam Costelow and Saundersfoot speedster Ryan Conbeer more than justified head coach Dwayne Peel’s willingness to put his faith in youth; and the West Walians showed glimpses of their trademark attacking flair.
Star summer signing: A quiet summer in the transfer market was enlivened by the arrival of Tongan-born New Zealand international Vaea Fifita.
Fifita, who can play flanker or lock, has been described by legendary All Blacks tactician Wayne Smith as one of the best players he ever coached.
The 30-year-old may still harbour a desire to add to his 11 caps in the famous black get-up, the last of which came in 2019.
Young guns to watch: The stage is set for a few young Scarlets to make their mark this season.
Legendary Former All Blacks Coach Wayne Smith Backs Vaea Fifita To Make A Huge Impact At The Scarlets https://t.co/kQ9lO8JoEB
— Dai Sport (@Dai_Sport_) September 5, 2022
Among them are Harri O’Connor, a surprise late call-up for Wales’ summer tour to South Africa; back-rower Carwyn Tuipulotu, who has impressed for Welsh age-grade sides; and 22-year-old lock Jac Price, who got a taste for first-team action with 13 showings last season.
Point to prove: The sheer abundance of players at Parc-Y-Scarlets with a point to prove means this section should really be split into multiple sub-categories.
The ‘Welsh legends returning from injury with only a year to go before the World Cup’ section (Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens).
The closely-related ‘Stalwart Welsh internationals who fancy one last crack at the big time’ section (Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Samson Lee).
The ‘Forgotten Wales squad members’ section (Josh MacLeod, WillGriff John, Johnny Williams, Tom Rogers, Steff Evans).
And the ‘Up-and-coming hookers and scrum-halves looking to deputise for Ken Owens/Ryan Elias and Kieran Hardy/Gareth Davies during international breaks’ section (Dafydd Hughes, Taylor Davies, Dane Blacker, Archie Hughes, Harri Williams). Take your pick from the above!
Coach’s corner: Dwyane Peel will have been reasonably pleased with some elements of his first year as Scarlets’ head coach, particularly in an attacking sense.
The men from Carmarthenshire scored considerably more tries and points than any of their Welsh rivals, and showed signs of a swashbuckling edge: only the Vodacam Bulls and DHL Stormers produced more offloads in the league, while Edinburgh were the only British or Irish side to make more clean breaks than the Scarlets in the URC.
With dedicated attack coach Dai Flanagan having headed to the Dragons over the summer, Peel will be charged with keeping standards high.
Yet, there were areas for concern last season, too: no side clocked up more missed tackles than the Scarlets (a stat that will anger defence coach Gareth Williams) and discipline was an issue – the home loss to the Dragons saw even experienced heads like Jonathan Davies capitulate wildly under the cosh.
There was at least some consolation at scrum-time, with the Scarlets enjoying one of the league’s steadiest set-pieces thanks to the input of forwards coach (and two-time New Zealand World Cup winner) Ben Franks.
Prospects: The Scarlets possess a large squad with quality in key areas, and you would expect to see steady if unspectacular progression under Peel this season.
Much will be expected of Halfpenny on his return from injury, especially with Liam Williams having departed; while the battle for the number 10 jersey between Rhys Patchell and Sam Costelow should be an intriguing sub-plot.