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Ulster enter new United Rugby Championship brimming with confidence

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland (centre) will need to mastermind a victory over provincial rivals Leinster to boost their chances of making the play-offs in the new United Rugby Championship
BY PAUL McINTYRE

Buoyed by their recent pre-season friendly victory over Saracens, Ulster will go into the first ever United Rugby Championship (URC) brimming with confidence as they welcome Glasgow to the Kingspan Stadium on Friday night.

While Glasgow are no strangers to the East Belfast Venue, it’s the inclusion of the South African big hitters that has everybody talking ahead of a defining moment in club rugby.

The Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, the Sigma Lions and the Vodacom Bulls will join the original members of the Pro 12 league to form a new 16-team super league with all sides eyeing a top eight finish to qualify for the end of season play-offs.

It’s not the first time the Northern Hemisphere teams have come up against South African opposition. In 2017 the Pro 12 expanded to the Pro 14 after the introduction of the Cheetahs and the Southern Kings, but these franchises failed to catch the imagination of the South African public. While the Cheetahs remained largely competitive, the Kings often found themselves to be the whipping boys, and now both have been replaced by what is seen by many as the big players of South African rugby.

With the new season just around the corner Ulster seemed to have pulled off a major coup with the news breaking last Thursday that they have signed South African back row forward Duane Vermeulen.

Vermeulen is seen as an almost like-for-like replacement for Marcel Coetzee who departed these shores earlier in the year to return to play for the Vodacom Bulls. Vermeulen, known as ‘Thor’ was named as Player of the Match in the 2019 World Cup final win over England and can operate anywhere across the back row, but No 8 will be seen as his primary position.

However, due to his international commitments, we are unlikely to see him in an Ulster jersey until late November, early December.

Last season the Covid-19 pandemic played havoc with the fixtures and the league was restricted to a mere 14 games.

Ulster remarkably won 12 out of their fixtures, but still found themselves outside the play-offs. Again, the inability to see off Leinster when it mattered proved to be their downfall as the D4 outfit cruised to another league title.

If Ulster are to make any serious inroads in the inaugural URC, then a win over Leo Cullen’s side is an obstacle that Dan McFarland’s side must overcome.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen 

Pre-Covid, the championship was divided into two conferences, but the inaugural URC will see a single league table, with 18 regular-season games (down from 21) to decide the standings.

Fewer games mean there is going to be “less margin of error there so it’s going to be more competitive”.

That’s the viewpoint of Ulster second row Kieran Treadwell, but the former Harlequins player feels that Ulster are in a good place following a tough, but excellent pre-season.

After coming through two tough outings against Saracens, Treadwell believes that playing the same opposition twice in pre-season had its advantages.

“It was massive. To get those two games back-to-back, it was nice to be able to play the same outfit again so we could actually go to the drawing board to see where we could improve and actually put it on to the pitch the next week” added Treadwell.

One of Ulster’s main weapons of attack is their maul and Treadwell says he can’t wait to test their power game against the Springbok franchises who are known in particular for their dominant packs.

“Obviously our maul went very well for us last year in Europe and the league, so it will be good to put ourselves up against those South African teams that are coming in. They’ve got some world class players in there so it will be really good to test ourselves against them. With regards to our own mindset and the way we want to play, obviously its not unknown to people that we like to play fast, so I think we are trying to up the pace a little bit more probably, and hopefully teams can’t live with us at that sort of tempo,” said Treadwell.

THE NEW BOYS

The Emirates Lions will be the first South African team that Ulster will square up against. The Johannesburg outfit will visit Belfast on Friday, October 15. Out-half Elton Jantjies is one of their more noted players. The Springbok international almost joined Ulster a number of years ago.

Ulster won’t face South African opposition again until the weekend of March 25 when they travel to the famous Newlands Stadium in Cape Town where they will face off against the DHL Stormers.

Here they are likely to come up against one of the most fearsome packs in club rugby. South African captain Siya Kolisi leads from the back row where he is joined by Pieter-Steph du Toit, while another World Cup winner, prop Steven Kitshoff is also in their ranks.

A week later Dan McFarland’s charges travel to another venue in world rugby which is steeped in history.

Loftus Versfield in Pretoria is the base for last season’s Rainbow Cup runners-up, the Vodacom Bulls.

Now coached by former South African head coach Jake White, the Bulls can boast a playing roster the includes the likes of Cornal Hendricks and Hande Pollard. While Arno Botha is another Springbok who almost signed for Ulster, one Bull that did sign on the dotted line was Marcel Coetzee.

Coetzee returned to his homeland last February after negotiating an early release from his contract, but the former number eight remains a fans favourite at the Kingspan Stadium even after an injury dominated spell at Ulster.

The Bulls are also the only South African franchise to triumph in Super Rugby, winning the title on three occasions. Firstly in 2007 before achieving back-to-back wins in 2009 and 2010.

Ruan Pienaar (centre) spent seven successful years with Ulster before leaving in 2017 and is now a key player for Cell C Sharks in the new United Rugby Championship

Ulster’s final game of the regulation season will see the Cell C Sharks visit the Kingspan Stadium on the weekend of May 21. Many see the Sharks as possible title challengers and with players of the calibre of Ruan Pienaar in their squad, who’s to say they won’t have a major say in the destination of the inaugural championship?

Pienaar of course spent seven successful years with Ulster before controversially leaving in 2017 when the IRFU refused to grant the South African a new contract, instead opting to give his place to an Irish qualified player.

Another Shark that will need no introduction to locals is Wiehahn Herbst. The 33-year-old prop made 80 appearances for Ulster in a five-year spell before returning home in 2019 to sign for the Golden Lions before recently rejoining the Sharks on a short-term deal.

HOW DOES THE NEW LEAGUE WORK?

The top eight after all games are played will enter the play-offs (quarter-finals, semi-finals and final).

For play-off seedings, the top team will play the side that finishes in eighth place, second v seventh and so on.

The first URC Grand Final is scheduled to place on Saturday, June 18 at a venue to be decided at a later date.

There are also no rounds scheduled during the international windows, making it more likely that teams will be able to call on their top stars more often.

RETURN OF INTERPROVINCIAL CHAMPIONSHIP

Regional pools have been introduced to ensure that local derbies all take place as usual, with home and away fixtures

Irish Pool: Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster

Welsh Pool: Dragons, Cardiff, Ospreys, Scarlets

South African Pool: Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls

Italian & Scottish Pool: Benetton, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Zebre

The remaining 12 games will be made from an even number of home or away games against the other teams in the league.

Each year the home or away fixture will alternate much like it does in the Six Nations, so, for example, Connacht host the Bulls in Galway this season and will travel to South Africa next season to play the Bulls.

NEW RULES

Fans will be familiar with some of the new laws that World Rugby are trialling, such as the 50:22 rule globally. If a team kicks the ball from inside their own half and it takes a bounce before going into touch in the opposing team's 22, then the kicking team gets the line-out throw.

Goal-line drop outs will also be introduced where the attacking team is held up or knocks on over the line, or if the ball is touched down in goal by a defender after an attacking kick.

The practice of pods of three or more players being pre-bound prior to receiving the ball has been banned, while players who target/drop their weight onto the lower limbs of a tackler will be penalised.

Both the 50:22 and goal-line drop out laws were trailed in the recent Rainbow Cup and both have seemed to be well received, however the trail to replace a player who has been red carded after 20 minutes has thankfully not been retained.

EUROPEAN QUALIFICATION

Qualification for Europe's top club competition remains a top priority for everyone and a total of eight teams from the URC will qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup.

The winner of each regional pool will qualify, followed by the next four highest ranked teams in the main league table.

From the 2022/23 season, South African teams will be able to enter the Champions Cup if they have finished in the qualification places in the URC standings in 2021/22.

Regional pool mechanics will ensure at least one team will qualify.

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