United Rugby Championship: Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors join new league and will have more access to their international players
The competition will feature northern and southern hemisphere teams, with South Africa’s four Super Rugby sides joining up with the 12 teams that played in the Guinness Pro14 in the season which has just ended.
It means that for the first time, and subject to contract terms being finalised with European Professional Club Rugby, South African teams will be eligible to play in the Heineken Champions Cup from season 2022-23.
The assimilation of South African sides into the European game will inevitably lead to speculation regarding them joining an expanded Six Nations at some point in the future.
The new United Rugby Championship will comprise Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls, from South Africa, and Edinburgh Glasgow, Cardiff, Ospreys, Scarlets, Dragons, Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connacht, Benetton and Zebre from the Pro14.
URC chief executive Martin Anayi – who was CEO of Pro14 – claimed the new league would “begin to reshape the world of club rugby,” while SA Rugby boss Jurie Roux described it as “a watershed moment in South African rugby history”.
The competition format comprises four regional pools of four, with teams playing each other home and away in their group, plus one fixture against each of the other 12 sides, giving each club 18 regular season fixtures. Edinburgh and Glasgow will join Benetton and Zebre in the ‘Italian & Scottish Pool’.
The top eight teams in a single table after those 18 regular season encounters will then enter a straight knockout phase, culminating in a Grand Final.
Matches will not be played on international weekends – a huge boost for Edinburgh and Glasgow who lose swathes of players to Scotland during the Six Nations and autumn Tests.
"As a team which provides players to the national team in double figures, this is a real boost for us,” said Richard Cockerill, the Edinburgh coach.
“Removing those clashes should mean better, more regular access to our best players, which can only be a good thing for our ambitions in the URC and for European Champions Cup qualification.
"It also means when supporters come to an Edinburgh game, they know they’re going to see the best against the best."
All points won during the URC season will contribute to rankings in the regional pools, and the highest-ranked team in each of the four groups will earn a Champions Cup place for the following season.
The remaining four allocated Champions Cup spots will go to the four highest-placed league teams that have not already qualified through their regional pools.
Teams will be seeded in the URC knockout phase based on their final league positions, meaning the top four will have home advantage, so the quarter-final fixtures would be: 1st v 8th, 2nd v 7th, 3rd v 6th, 4th v 5th.
The format of the new competition means there will be only two Edinburgh-Glasgow league derbies next season and it remains to be seen if the 1872 Cup will revert to being settled over two games instead of three.
The United Rugby Championship is scheduled to begin on the weekend of September 24/25/26. The regular season ends on May 20/21/22, with the play-offs due to be held over three weekends in June, with the final on the 24th or 25th.