SA teams to contest United Rugby Championship, prospects of Champions Cup participation

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SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux talks to the media after France was announced as the host nation for the 2023 Rugby World Cup at Royal Garden Hotel in London on 15 November 2017 (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux talks to the media after France was announced as the host nation for the 2023 Rugby World Cup at Royal Garden Hotel in London on 15 November 2017 (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Bryn Lennon
  • South Africa's four premier franchises will play in a new-look European competition later this year. 
  • The South African sides will also be able to qualify for the European Champions Cup.
  • Each side will play a total of 18 round-robin fixtures before the play-offs.

A new era will kick off for South African rugby when the Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls join the 12 European PRO14 clubs for the United Rugby Championship (URC), which will kick off in September 2021 in a brand new, 16-team league.

Initially expected to be called the Rainbow Cup, the new product also holds out the prospect of South Africa's teams being eligible to qualify for the European Champions Cup from the 2022/23 season, subject to the finalisation of contract terms with European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), which owns the competition.

The agreement allows SA Rugby to become a full shareholder in Pro Rugby Championship alongside the Celtic and Italian unions. 

The 18-round regular season in the United Rugby Championship will see the return of a single-standing table that will prevent clashes with international weekends.

Every game will count in the league which will be further strengthened by an expanded knock-out series with a full schedule of quarter-finals and semi-finals capped off by a Grand Final played in a destination venue.

United Rugby Championship League Format

The URC will use one league table to rank the teams who will reach the knock-out stages and compete to reach the title and become the champions.

The regular season of the United Rugby Championship will take place across 18 rounds with each team’s fixtures comprising of six (6) home and away fixtures against their regional pool opponents and 12 home or away fixtures against the remaining teams in the league.

Regional pools

Irish Pool: Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster

Welsh Pool: Dragons, Cardiff Rugby, Ospreys, Scarlets

South African Pool: Sharks, Stormers, Lions and Bulls

Italian & Scottish Pool: Benetton Rugby, Edinburgh, Glasgow Warriors, Zebre Rugby Club

One league table will be used to rank teams and after 18 rounds the top eight sides will qualify for the play-offs. Teams will be seeded from 1 to 8 and will receive home advantage according to their seeding.

A full round of quarter-finals and semi-finals will take place to produce two teams who will qualify for the Grand Final.

United Rugby Championship European Qualification

A total of eight teams from the United Rugby Championship will qualify each season for the following season’s Champions Cup. The balance of teams will participate in the Challenge Cup.

Subject to the finalisation of contract terms with EPCR, South African teams will be eligible to qualify for the Champions Cup from the 2022/23 season if they have finished in the United Rugby Championship qualification places from the prior season.

All points won during the URC season will contribute to rankings in the regional pools and the highest-ranking team in each of the four pools will earn a place in the Champions Cup for the following season. 

The remaining four places in the Champions Cup will be awarded to the four highest-ranked teams from the single-standing league table who have not already qualified through the four regional pools. 

"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," Martin Anayi, CEO of United Rugby Championship, said in a statement on Tuesday.  

"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 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. 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, CEO of SA Rugby, added: "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."

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