By David Williams
PRO 14 chief Martin Anayi has claimed the newly titled United Rugby Championship will operate at international rugby standards.
That will raise an eyebrow among regular watchers of the Guinness Pro14 in Wales who have got used to many matches where the standards and intensity have been way beneath Test level.
But Anayi insists the introduction of four new South African teams to compete in a new 16-team tournament will raise the league to new heights.
At present, only Leinster could lay claim to reaching international standards – a judgement reflected in recent European campaigns in the Heineken Champions Cup.
Wales’ four regions – the Dragons, Cardiff Blues (who become Cardiff Rugby on July 1), Ospreys and Scarlets – will compete in a new, 16-team tournament called the United Rugby Championship from next season.
The current Guinness PRO14 competition is being renamed with four South African sides – Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls – joining.
It is a landmark change for northern hemisphere rugby with South Africa’s best teams now eligible to qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup for the first time from the 2022/23 season.
This is the United Rugby Championship 🏉
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) June 15, 2021
The United Rugby Championship will see each team play the other 15 either home or away while there will also be three return derby matches.
There will be 18 regular season fixtures – down from 21 – with fewer matches played on the same weekends as Test rugby.
Instead of the PRO14’s two-conference system, the United Rugby Championship will have one league table.
The top eight teams will qualify for the knock-out series with quarter-finals, semi-finals, and then a final – which will be held in a destination venue – to be played.
Anayi, chief executive officer of United Rugby Championship, said: “Fans have always asked more of our league and now we are taking it to new heights.
“The United Rugby Championship will see World Cup winners, icons of the Guinness Six Nations, the Rugby Championship and stars of the British & Irish Lions tour turning up the intensity in an exciting new league format.
“Since the origins of the Celtic League in 2001, the vision has been to innovate and evolve in order to create a compelling competition which would challenge our players and teams to be at their very best every single week.
“Their potential has never been in doubt and now we can provide them with the arena to be the very best.
“Forming the United Rugby Championship will begin to reshape the world of club rugby.
“We are creating a league that embraces and celebrates difference and where the only way to succeed will be to match the skill and intensity of the international game.
“The arrival of South Africa’s elite teams and the removal of fixtures from international match weekends will make our league stronger across the board. We will see heroes taking on heroes every week in iconic locations to create an appeal that will be unmatched in the world of club rugby.
“We now have a clear purpose and identity that everyone associated with our league can stand behind. We have listened and we have answered the challenge set by our clubs to take this competition to the next level both on and off the field.
Everything you need to know ⬇️
— PRO14 RUGBY (@PRO14Official) June 15, 2021
“North and south will now collide on a regular basis and we cannot wait to see who will rise up as the first champions of the United Rugby Championship.”
Jurie Roux, chief executive officer of South Africa Rugby, said: “South African rugby has for many years imagined a future aligned with northern hemisphere rugby and this announcement marks the arrival of that vision.
“Our teams will be pitting themselves against the leading clubs from four nations steeped in rugby tradition and folklore. They’ll do it without having to cross time zones or acclimatise while 100 per cent of matches will kick off in South African prime time.
“This is a watershed moment in South African rugby history, opening new doors and heralding a new and exciting era for our sport.”
Fixture Dates for 2021/22 United Rugby Championship season:
R1: Weekend 24/25/26 September
R2: 1/2/3 October
R3: 8/9/10 October
R4: 15/16/17 October
R5: 22/23/24 October
R6: 29/30/31 October
R7: 3/4/5 December
R8: 24/25/26 December
R9: 31 December 1/2 January
R10: 7/8/9 January
R11: 28/29/30 January
R12: 18/19/20 January
R13: 4/5/6 March
R14: 25/26/27 March
R15: 1/2/3 April
R16: 22/23/24 April
R17: 29/20/21 April
R18: 20/21/22 May
URC Quarter Finals: 3/4/5 June
URC Semi-Finals 10/11/12 June
URC Final: 23/24/25 June