Gerry Thornley: Rugby is back again but this time it’s different

It remains to be seen whether South African teams will galvanise the tournament

Around the middle of last May, when the 2021 Allianz Football and Hurling Leagues began, a radio presenter gave the cue for the upcoming sports bulletin thus: “Now that sport is back.”

Some sports, of course, had been back a while by then and one of them, rugby, had been on the go virtually without interruption since picking up the threads of the 2019-20 season in August of last year. After cramming the conclusion of that campaign and that of 2020-21 into last season, the sport has been off since the conclusion of the British and Irish Lions tour six weeks ago, on this side of the world at any rate.

Now it’s back again in the guise of the glossy new United Rugby Championship (URC) but this time it’s different. While it was a huge credit to all concerned to squeeze so much rugby out of the 2020-21 season, without fans it was somewhat soulless, all the more so when looking on at other sports which were allowed to welcome back crowds in meaningful numbers, be it the Euros, the All-Irelands or whatever.

Next Friday night at the Kingspan Stadium, when the Glasgow Warriors visit and 15,000 supporters will be in attendance to chant “Stand Up for the Ulstermen”, it will not be soulless. Nor will the Aviva stadium at 5.15pm on Saturday, when Leinster will be able to accommodate anything up to 35,000 for the visit of the Bulls.


After winning four titles in a row, Leinster are already an unbackable 6/4 on favourites to win the URC

It’s been a long, long year and a half since attendances of that ilk, and judging by the Rugby Championship and the opening salvos of the Top 14 and the Premiership, the crowds will be a huge boost for the URC.

This rebranded competition has had more than its share of makeovers and not only is there no title sponsor to replace Guinness after they walked away, the format is not especially supporter friendly. It remains to be seen whether the advent of the South African teams will galvanise the tournament in quite the manner anticipated.

Given the Springboks are scheduled to be on the road until the end of November, their four franchises could be without their leading Test stars until at least December and with the Champions Cup then taking centre stage followed by the festive derbies, the much anticipated clashes between locked and fully loaded provinces against like-minded Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions could be a while away yet.

Last season, when the four Irish teams filled the top two positions in each conference and thereby sealed the first four qualifying places in the Champions Cup may have been a bit of an anomaly anyway.

Under the wily Toby Booth and Dai Young, the Ospreys and Cardiff were already showing signs of a revival in the latter half of last season, while Glasgow and Edinburgh will surely benefit from being pitted into the Scottish/Italian pool.

By contrast, in having to play one-third of their games against fellow Irish teams, the provinces have been handed a tougher draw, not least one suspects, Munster, Ulster and Connacht. After winning four titles in a row, Leinster are already an unbackable 6/4 on favourites to win the URC, but given their strength in depth and the reduced number of clashes with international windows, those odds are understandable.

Measure of success

Leinster’s own measure of success will be how they go in Europe. Disappointingly, the ERC have opted to retain the format which was somewhat foisted upon them by the pandemic and cancellations, whereby the 24 teams have been divided into two conferences of 12, in which each teams plays just four games in endeavouring to finish in the top eight and qualify for a round of 16.

The suspicion lurks that the more abbreviated, four-game pool sprint to the knock-out stages may also again prove more suited to the French teams than the more nuanced six-game groups of four, but most of all the format is just less spectator friendly and easy to follow.

As in soccer’s Champions League clearly defined round-robin groups of four work, and bearing the impending re-formatting of that competition, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

The same cannot necessarily be said of the game itself, and at times it seems the constant tinkering only makes a complex game even more complicated. Judgement awaits on the goal-line restart and the so-called ‘50-22’ rule, whereby a team which kicks the ball form their own half and it bounces into touch inside the opposition 22 is rewarded with the throw-in.

Designed to ensure defending teams cover the backfield and so leave more space on the gain line and especially on the edges, it certainly brings a new element into the game. That said, the evidence of some pre-season friendlies and, for example, last Friday’s Bristol-Saracens game is that these two law changes may encourage more kicking.

Ireland finished off last season with five successive wins, but it will be an almighty achievement for Andy Farrell’s team to extend that sequence deep into this season. In between Japan and Argentina, the All Blacks are due to come calling next November for the first time since their 2018 defeat in the Aviva stadium, and a first meeting since their 46-14 win over Ireland in the World Cup quarter-finals.

Despite using the Rugby Championship to delve into their squad, New Zealand remain on course to retain their crown with six bonus-point wins, while Australia’s seriously eye-catching wins over South Africa have helped restored the All Blacks to their customary place atop the world rankings.

Furthermore, Ireland’s biennial Six Nations itinerary means treks to Twickenham and the Stade de France. And if that wasn’t daunting enough, Farrell and co then complete another prolonged and arduous season with a sortie to New Zealand for a scheduled three-Test series against the All Blacks.

The last time an Irish team were in the Land of the Long White Cloud was also for a three-Test series, the first such tour there, back in 2012 and, of course, it culminated in that 60-0 Hamilton Horror Show.

Some season then, topped off by the Ultimate Rugby Challenge.