United Rugby Championship: How Ulster stand to benefit from new league

By Michael MorrowBBC Sport NI
Ulster huddle after defeat
Ulster were disappointed to miss out on last season's Pro14 final having lost just two league games
United Rugby Championship: Ulster v Glasgow Warriors
Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast Date: Friday, 24 September Kick-off: 19:35 BST
Coverage: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website with match highlights online on Saturday; watch the game back in full on BBC iPlayer from Saturday evening

In the middle of last November Ulster romped to a 57-14 win over Zebre.

Marcell Coetzee helped himself to a first-half hat-trick in a physical mismatch as the province, only six games into their season, extended their lead over third-placed Ospreys to 19 points.

The only side they had for company at the top of Conference A was a predictably undefeated Leinster, while over in Conference B Munster had won five from five and were eight points clear in first.

Meanwhile, as the provinces' Pro14 domination teetered on the border of impressive and laughable, Ireland were just days away from a trip to Twickenham in the inaugural (and final) Autumn Nations Cup.

It was a game very few outside the camp expected them to win, having been manhandled by the same opposition in each of the last three meetings. So it proved, England muscled their way to an easy 18-9 win.

On paper the fortunes of club and country had rarely looked so distant, and it was increasingly difficult to see how the pattern was going to change.

Fast forward to the present day and you might argue that things have sorted themselves out to a degree. Ireland's strong finish to the Six Nations allayed some fears surrounding their future prospects and as such perhaps took the spotlight away from the disadvantages that come with an uncompetitive league.

But that would only serve to accept a short-term easing of a long-term problem. Going forward the Irish provinces need to be in a league where the majority of the results are not so easily pre-determined, if not for their seasoned internationals then for the emerging young talents for whom the step-up to Test rugby is made far more manageable when cutting their teeth in a club competition that challenges them week-in, week-out.

This is the big hope for the United Rugby Championship (URC). And it is every bit as important for the provinces as it is for Ireland.

Irish provinces at URC launch
The four provinces will still face each other twice a season in the new league format

'New structure should benefit Ulster'

The URC's new format and the introduction of four South African sides should in theory make for a closer, more competitive league.

For Leinster the need for a more consistent challenge is evidenced by their four consecutive Pro14 titles. The increased competition is equally important for Ulster, and indeed Munster, for whom beating Leinster became really their only measure of success in the last few league seasons.

Going by that metric, Ulster failed in their mission. Their only two league defeats in the last campaign came against Leinster, while they also lost the Rainbow Cup meeting.

Interprovincial derbies against Connacht and Munster will always get the adrenaline pumping, and each team backs itself to beat the other. The same is true with Leinster, but such has been their league dominance that they are the clear benchmark of where Ulster need to be if they want to end their silverware drought.

The goal of reaching Leinster's level should not be confused with beating them in a game. The target for Ulster is achieving a sustained level of success that results in consistently fighting for, and often winning, silverware.

If we can agree on that, then we can agree that Ulster stand to benefit from the URC as much as any team. A competition with eight play-off places up for grabs, with quarter-final home advantage for the top four is likely to ensure that Ulster are fighting right up to, or at least close to, the 18th and final game of the regular season in order to secure the best possible position.

Such competition, where every single game and every single result matters, is how progress is made.

Marcell Coetzee lift the Currie Cup
Former Ulster back row Marcell Coetzee is now captain of the Bulls, one of four South African sides in the URC

The route to silverware

Dan McFarland has made no secret of his measure of success for the season ahead. Silverware is the target every year, but now for this group of Ulster players - a relatively settled squad since McFarland took over - it is alongside a run beyond the Champions Cup quarter-finals the only tangible indicator of forward progress they have left.

With the competition more closely aligned to the international calendar, Ulster have five games before a month's break for the autumn Tests.

Three of the province's first four matches are home fixtures with Connacht away on 23 October their first interpro of the season, and one that will likely provide a real yardstick of their early-season success before they return from the break to face Leinster on 27 November.

With seven games including two Champions Cup meetings and four interpros between the end of November and 8 January, the post-autumn international run is where we will see if Ulster's season catches fire.

The timely addition of South African World Cup winner Duane Vermuelen for those games should provide a huge boost for the province, while Iain Henderson will feature on a a much more regular basis, with the skipper set to miss Ulster's opening contests due to his late return to pre-season training on account of his British and Irish Lions involvement.

A blockbuster signing, the return of fans and the allure of a new competition have all contributed to the palpable excitement felt by Ulster fans who expect their young, likeable squad to take a step forward in their development.

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