2023 Munster vs Hollywoodbets Sharks

Key Talking Points For Round 1 Of The 2023-2024 United Rugby Championship

Key Talking Points For Round 1 Of The 2023-2024 United Rugby Championship

Round 1 of the 2023-2024 United Rugby Championship season starts Saturday. Here are key talking points to follow as the competition gets underway.

Oct 20, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Key Talking Points For Round 1 Of The 2023-2024 United Rugby Championship

As the autumn leaves continue their freefall in Europe, and the summer sun peeps around the corner in South Africa, the 16 provincial teams that make up the United Rugby Championship are ready for the third season of Rugby’s fastest-growing league. 

Across the first two seasons, the league has seen two champions from different countries. 

The DHL Stormers from Cape Town, South Africa, claimed the inaugural crown, stunning perhaps even their own fans, as they saw off archrivals the Vodacom Bulls in a tightly contest final at the DHL Stadium. 

Twelve months later, Irish powerhouse Munster would go on the road for the final five weeks of their campaign. Four wins and one draw in this period locked up a first title for the province in 12 years. 

Munster defeated the Stormers in Cape Town 19-14, a week after going to Dublin and seeing off their fiercest rival, Leinster, 16-15 - undoubtedly its best set of results since winning the Heineken Cup in 2008. 

Thus, the question that will be on the minds of all URC fans from now until June 22, 2024, is who will claim the third edition of this exhilarating competition? 

Gauging the early temperature for any tournament is a challenging prospect. However, with kickoff now less than 24 hours away, here are some of the biggest talking points heading into Round 1:

Contenders Clash 

There is no doubt that every clash in Round 1 carries with it an interesting subplot for rugby fans to sink their teeth into. Yet two, in particular, see four pre-season title favorites meet in an early opportunity for supremacy. 

First up, reigning champion Munster welcomes the Hollywoodbets Sharks to Thomond Park. 

They met in two crucial fixtures late in the season. The first was a Champions Cup last-16 match, and the second was a crucial URC match-up. Both matches were in Durban.

The Sharks ran ruck shot 50-35. Two weeks later, Munster returned to claim a crucial 22-22 draw, which sent the Sharks on the road to Leinster in the quarterfinals and Munster to Glasgow. 

Crucially, however, it ensured Munster remained in the Champions Cup, while the Sharks dropped down to the Challenge Cup. 

Thus, Round 1 can be pitched as a revenge game for both teams. 

For Munster, it will look to avenge the humbling defeat in the Champions Cup, while the Sharks will look to get one over a playoff rival away from home. 

The second of these crunch fixtures sees the Irish and Scottish shield winners square off, as Leinster and Glasgow meet at Scotstoun Stadium. 

Losing just three matches in all competitions last season, Leinster will go to the well once again. Unfortunately for Leo Cullen’s team, two of those losses were in knockout matches, as they lost the Champions Cup to La Rochelle for a second successive year, before the semifinal loss to Munster. 

Looking to remind their rivals of their factory line of talent, Leinster has named a team stacked with international quality. 

Crucially, however, none of their World Cup squad members have returned as of yet. Let that sink in for a second: Leinster is fielding what is, at best, a third-string side, which still consists of 10 internationals. Yet for all of the talent, none is more exciting than dynamic former U20 star Sam Prendergast, who will stake his claim for being the successor to the now-retired Johnny Sexton. 

Starting from the bench, Prendergast will enter the fray when Leinster’s other exciting young fly-half, Harry Byrne, leaves the pitch. 

While Leinster is a mouth-watering prospect, Glasgow is packed with quality operators. 

Naming 11 internationals, including several of Scotland’s Rugby World Cup squad players, the Warriors will look to set out their stall with an early victory against the betting favorites for the league title. 

Sam Prendergast Factor 

As touched upon above, rarely has there been such hype surrounding a U20 player as there has been for Sam Prendergast. 

The 6-foot-4 fly-half was a man amongst boys at the underage level and long has been earmarked as the next big thing in Irish Rugby. 

Having watched his brother Cian go on to achieve senior international honors, there is no doubt Sam will be looking to push Munster’s Jack Crowley for the now-vacant Irish No. 10 shirt. Standing in his way is the dynamic duo - brothers Ross and Harry Byrne - as well as utility back Ciaran Frawley. 

While Leinster coach Leo Cullen will be wary of feeding the youngster to the wolves, early indications are that he is more than ready for the big time. 

World Cup Factor 

With the 2023 Rugby World Cup remaining at the forefront of the Rugby world, the opening two rounds of this season will see a number of the top teams without several international stars. 

The South African, Welsh and Irish teams will be shorn of their front-line talent. Therefore, the opportunity for an upset or two is ripe, adding an extra layer of jeopardy to this weekend’s matchups. 

One fixture that appears primed for an unexpected result is Zebre against Ulster. The Italian side will face the Northern Irish province, which will be missing several key front-line players and will be at its most vulnerable in Round 1. 

By no means will they be walkovers, but should Zebre be looking to upset one of the bigger teams in the league, this would be the perfect opportunity. 

First Derby Of The Season 

A north versus south match always makes for exciting viewing, and this weekend’s matchup between the Stormers and Lions is no exception. 

The South African teams are renowned for their exhilarating, expansive styles of play. 

The Stormers, who have contested both of the first two finals in the tournament’s history, will be without a number of Springbok players but remain the pick of the South African teams this season. 

Over the past two seasons, head coach John Dobson has proven that he knows how to get his team to the right emotional and tactical pitch. 

On the flip side, the Lions will be kicking themselves for allowing their early season form to slip as they fell out of playoff contention. 

It is worth remembering, however, that we are just a few years removed from the Johannesburg-based team, being the top South African side in Super Rugby. Round 1 presents an opportunity for them to take the first step in returning to the top of the South African pile.