Opinion: Are teams undervaluing the United Rugby Championship?

United Rugby Championship final

If you’ve watched the United Rugby Championship in recent years then you’ve probably noticed a big change. This is because the tournament underwent a major revamp for the 2021/22 season. The league was rebranded as the URC and expanded to make room for four South African sides.

This updated format was somewhat controversial with some welcoming the change and others – like former Wales captain, Sam Warburton – questioning the decision. However, South Africa enjoyed a stellar first season. With an all-South African final and the Stormers claiming their first title, the future of the URC looked bright.

That was until 2023 when it seemed to be overshadowed by the Heineken Champions Cup. In short, the United Rugby Championship isn’t looking so united.

Record breaking figures in 2022

Although things are looking a little unsettled in 2023, last year’s tournament painted a very different picture. According to statistics, the inaugural season broke viewing records with more fans watching the URC than ever before. A total of 34.6 million fans watched the 18-week season.

CEO of the United Rugby Championship, Martin Anayi, said that these numbers “provide a terrific pulse check for the URC.” 

When talking about the addition of South Africa, he went on to say: “Ultimately, the excitement on the pitch coupled to the intrigue of the big four South African teams joining the league has provided a great draw.”

He summed up his thoughts by saying there were “really strong foundations for the URC to build from.”

South African United Rugby Championship teams

United Rugby Championship: Calls for change in 2023

The 2022/23 season was one of polar opposites. Take Zebre Parma. This Italian side lost every single one of their 18 games and finished at the bottom of the league. Meanwhile, Leinster only lost two of their matches, one being the semi-final against Munster. 

Martin Anayi weighed in on the issue and from his point of view, it seems the closed nature of the league could be to blame.

“There is a natural filter system to relegation, one team goes down and the team that comes up is full of expectation because they have won the league below; we don’t have that in a closed league.”

He added: “Our job is to find ways of helping the likes of Zebre and the Italian Federation to make them more competitive.”

He believes a draft system could be the answer. By bringing in players from other unions, it would ensure that all teams are more competitive.

The problem of the Heineken Cup and the Premiership

In addition to making the league more competitive, it seems part of the issue comes down to timing. Why? Because the United Rugby Championship competes for audience figures with two major tournaments: the Heineken Champions Cup and Premiership Rugby.

The final of the 2023 Heineken Cup was held on 20th May, the week in between the semi-finals and final of the URC. Meanwhile, the final phase of the Premiership shared a calendar with the United Rugby Championship. 

Again, Martin Anayi believes a solution can be found. Ideally, he would like to schedule the United Rugby Championship so that it’s contested in the same window as the Six Nations. He feels “it’s more about aligning the seasons rather than saying where they should or shouldn’t play.”

Could this solve the problem? Or would the United Rugby Championship struggle to compete against the Six Nations? The answer to those questions remains to be seen.

Main photo credit: Munster Rugby