2023 Stade Rochelais vs Leinster Rugby

United Rugby Championship Clubs In The Investec Champions Cup

United Rugby Championship Clubs In The Investec Champions Cup

Explore the contenders from the United Rugby Championship who will take on the best of the Top 14 and Gallagher Premiership in the Investec Champions Cup.

Dec 8, 2023 by Philip Bendon
United Rugby Championship Clubs In The Investec Champions Cup

When it comes to club rugby, no competition holds more prestige than the blue-chip stock that is the Investec Champions Cup. 

For the traditionalists, the former Heineken Cup has been a staple of the European game since the 1995-1996 season. 

Pitting the very best of the European game against one another, the tournament has produced some of the finest rugby moments ever seen. 

Whether it is the glitz and glamour of the continental teams, the no-nonsense English clubs or the tribalism of the Celtic unions, the tournament brings out the very best in players and supporters. 

Highlighting the competitive nature of the tournament, teams from each of the three competing leagues, the United Rugby Championship, Gallagher Premiership and French Top 14, all have won the tournament. 

Thus, the desire to succeed in the tournament continues to burn as ferociously as ever for the 24 competing clubs chasing what undoubtedly is the pinnacle of the club game. 

While the tradition of the tournament remains in place, the organizers have taken the brave and bold step to extend its borders. 

Extending their reach beyond European borders, the tournament organizers followed the URC’s pathway to include teams from South Africa last season. 

Now, returning for another bite of the apple, South Africa’s big two from the URC, the DHL Stormers and Vodacom Bulls, will look to break the monopoly held by the French, English and Irish clubs. 

Joining the South African sides in chasing the title will be the lone Welsh representative in the competition, capital side Cardiff. As losing finalists in the inaugural tournament, the men in blue have an esteemed history with the tournament. Though they have never won, they have, at times, come within a fingertip of returning to the final. 

Entering this season as a major underdog, little is expected of Cardiff, which will be just how they like it.   

So, without further ado, here is a look at the eight URC teams that will be looking to stake their claim for the ultimate honor in club rugby. 

Leinster Rugby 

Four-time champion Leinster enter the 2023-2024 competition scorned by the disappointment of back-to-back final losses in the past two seasons. 

The Dubliners have entered just about every tournament over the past decade as favorites, yet they have claimed just one title since 2012, which came in 2018. 

While just about every other team in the competition would be thrilled with this return, the men from Ireland’s capital simply do not settle for mediocrity. 

Adding insult to the wound, last season’s final in Dublin saw them race out to a three-score lead only to squander any chance of winning, as Top 14 powerhouse La Rochelle, guided by former Munster and Ireland icon Ronan O’Gara, nipped them to the finish line. 

Mirroring the outcome of a year previous, Leinster’s unwanted tag as nearly-men remains. 

One person who does not settle for second best is two-time Rugby World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber, who joined the province this season. 

Arriving in Dublin on the back of his second successive World Cup title, there are high hopes at Leinster HQ that the South African can add that final sprinkling of stardust to take arguably the tournament’s most talented team back to the summit of their Mount Everest. 

While Nienaber's addition is a major boost, the departure of the man he replaced in Stuart Lancaster, and more crucially, the retirement of iconic captain Johnny Sexton, casts some level of doubt about their ability to win it all. 

Since Sexton's departure, there has been a four-way shootout for the key No. 10 shirt. 

Presumed starter Ross Byrne will miss at least the opening two rounds through injury, leaving his brother Harry in a battle with Ciaran Frawley, and to a lesser extent, the exciting prospect Sam Prendergast for the starting role. 

The U20 superstar, Prendergast, likely will be the third in line, given he is in his first full season of pro rugby. 

Thus, for now, it would appear as though Harry and Frawley will get the first crack of the whip. 

This level of uncertainty in such a key position looks to be the one area of fragility that could halt Leinster's charge to that coveted fifth star. 

This weekend it all begins where it left off last season, as they travel to La Rochelle.

Predication: Semifinals

Munster Rugby 

Two time champion Munster is regarded as one of the giants of European Rugby. 

Despite winning its last title in 2008, Ireland’s southern province routinely has punched above its weight, regularly featuring in the final stages of the competition. 

This season should be no different. In fact, it may well be Munster's best chance at glory since 2008. 

Buoyed by victory in last season’s URC final, the Minstermen once again will be feared by just about every team in the tournament. 

Spearheading the challenge is a group of exceptionally talented youngsters who have yet to hit their prime. 

Names such as Craig Casey, Jack Crowley, Thomas Ahern, Edwin Edogbo, John Hodnett, Antoine Frisch, Shane Daly and Calvin Nash will end this season as household names in European Rugby. 

Supplementing these homegrown talents are veteran players who have made their names at the top of the game in Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray. 

Throw in a couple wild cards - center Alex Nankivell and highly touted tighthead prop Oli Jager - and Munster may have a top-4 roster in the tournament. 

While Leinster has struggled to get over the final hurdle, this group of Munster players already has demonstrated its ability to win silverware. 

While this is not to say that they have more talent than the big three of Toulouse, La Rochelle and their rivals from Dublin, there is a real belief that, unlike seasons past, they have the ability to go toe to toe with them when it matters. 

For this, head coach Graham Rowntree and his coaching team deserve immense credit, and this writer has a sneaking suspicion that the red army will be among the final four teams this season.

Predication: Finals

Ulster Rugby 

Winner in the 1998-1999 season, Ulster, like its southern Irish rivals, are a Tiffany franchise when it comes to European competition. 

Supported by immensely passionate fans, Ulster’s track record of punching above its weight and pulling off some of the most memorable performances makes it a must-watch outfit. 

Under head coach Dan McFarland, they have been the closest of Irish teams to knocking out Leinster, coming agonizingly close to sending the Dubliners packing in 2019. 

Eventually, Ulster succumbed to a 21-18 defeat at the Aviva Stadium. 

Since then, even the most die-hard of Ulster fans would agree it has been an immensely frustrating team to follow. 

When they are on form, they can beat any team in this competition. The challenge has been to find a level of consistency that can guide them to the finish line. 

Sitting with four wins from seven outings in this season’s URC, the unwanted game of snakes and ladders has remained at Ravenhill. 

Beating Munster one week before getting thumped by Glasgow the next, predicting an Ulster result is about as reliable as a roll of the dice in a Vegas casino. 

Starting with McFarland, who has grown visibly frustrated with his squad, he has lamented their up-and-down nature publicly. 

To put a positive spin on Ulster's season thus far, however, the emergence of several young players to the senior level gives this team a sense that it is building for the future. 

To summarize this preview, it is fair to suggest that Ulstermen once again will have their say at points this season; however, their reluctance to back up performances will ultimately be their undoing. 

Prediction: Last 16

Connacht Rugby 

Often a forgotten son of rugby in Ireland, the men from Galway are one of the true wild cards of this season. 

Building nicely under new head coach Pete Wilkins, Connacht plays the rugby equivalent of a smooth whiskey - easy on the eye but more than capable of landing a knockout blow. 

Possessing two of the best backline players in the world in Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen, those unfamiliar with Connacht should get ready for rip-roaring action from start to finish. 

While these two players undoubtedly are the fulcrum around which the rest of the squad operates, this squad has more talent than any Connacht side that has gone before them. 

Irish internationals Cian Prendergast, Caolin Blade Finlay Bealham have a real shot at starting Six Nations fixtures with a strong run of club form. 

Behind them is the emergence of Cathal Forde, Diarmuid Kilgallen, David Hawkshaw and Dylan Tierney-Martin, to name a few, as serious senior-level operators, adding a new dimension to Connacht Rugby. 

Questions will remain about their depth, but there is no doubt this team is capable of a run to the playoffs. 

Prediction: Quarterfinals

Cardiff Rugby 

Flying the Welsh flag this season, Cardiff, as touched upon above, likely will enter the tournament under the radar. 

Like Ulster, Cardiff's inability to string together consistent performances has been a hallmark of its run over the past few years. Yet, when they do get it right, they can be breathtaking to watch. 

No player sums up Cardiff better than 21-year-old Mason Grady, who struggled to make a true impact when given a chance with Wales in the buildup to the Rugby World Cup. 

Playing in the centers at the international level, Grady mainly has featured on the wing so far this season in what has been a masterstroke move by the coaching staff at Cardiff. 

Simply put, Grady looks like the second coming of Wales icon George North. 

At 6-foot-5 and 112 kilograms, Grady is a mismatch nightmare in the wide channels, and his try-scoring record in the URC reflects this. 

While dealing in hyperbole is a dangerous decision for any journalist, Grady really has the making of a dominant player for both club and country on the wing. 

Alongside him, Cardiff has some quality operators, with backrow Ellis Jenkins, Corey Domachowski, Rhys Carre, Josh Adams and Tomos Williams all being in with a real chance at featuring for Wales in the Six Nations. 

The challenge for Cardiff, unfortunately, is depth, namely brute force to bring off the bench. 

Starting its campaign away to Toulouse can be viewed as a golden opportunity or a hiding-to-nothing deepening on one’s perspective. 

Prediction: Pool Stage

The DHL Stormers 

The URC’s most successful side has featured in both of the tournament’s finals to date, including winning the inaugural edition. 

The DHL Stormers quite possibly have the biggest swing rate in the tournament, depending on how they plan to attack it. 

Opening this weekend with a second-string side away to the Leicester Tigers due to travel constraints always was the likely outcome. 

Clearly John Dobson has targeted next weekend’s home fixture against back-to-back champion La Rochelle as his side’s first crack at a statement win. 

All you have to do with this side is look at the names on the team sheet to understand that on any given day, they could put 50 points past opponents. 

The roster is stacked to the gills with Springboks, such as Evan Roose, Damian Willemse, Manie Libbok, Herschel Jantjies, Warrick Gelant and Deon Fourie, to name a few. 

The Cape Townians' frontline team is as good as it gets from No. 6 backward. 

Unfortunately, and possibly as a direct reflection of their immense success coupled with previous financial issues, Dobson’s squad has been pilfered by opponents. 

Key among the departed players' in the offseason are captain and two-time World Cup winner Steven Kitshoff, who signed with Ulster, and fellow World Cup winner Marvin Orie, who has gone to Perpignan. 

These two moves alone have had a significant impact on the Stormers' tight five, who were a hallmark of the Stormers title-winning team. 

Throw into the mix the travel factor, and the importance of a home playoff run is key to their success. 

From the outside, it would appear that the URC is their priority in what is a brutally tough pool. 

Prediction: Pool Stage

The Vodacom Bulls 

The stampede is incoming for European opponents this season. 

Openly rotating his squad due to travel constraints last season, Director of Rugby Jake White has named a locked-and-loaded side for this weekend’s opener against three-time champion Saracens in Pretoria. 

The Londoners have returned the favor by naming a potent team, spearheaded by England’s international record point scorer, Owen Farrell. 

This clash undoubtedly will be a humdinger and also likely play a role in how the former Super Rugby powerhouse goes about the rest of the competition. 

Like their arch-rivals, the Stormers, the Bulls are stacked with Springbok talent, including World Cup winners Kurt-Lee Arendse, Willie Le Roux, Canan Moodie and Marco van Staden. 

Reading the rest of the Bulls teamsheet is an exercise in listing a who's who of South African Rugby, with several other recent Springboks and future Springboks in the squad. 

Away from the household names, and one who fits into the future Springbok category, is No. 8 Cameron Hanekom, who, like his backrow teammate Elrigh Louw a few seasons ago, is taking the URC by storm. 

This duo, with van Staden and Springbok Marcell Coetzee, sees the Bulls have quite possibly the best back row in the competition. 

Once again mirroring the Stormers, the Bulls need a home knockout route to go deep in this tournament. Should they manage to do this, there is no reason they can’t lift the trophy come season’s end. 

Prediction: Semifinals

Glasgow Warriors 

Currently sitting pretty in second place on the URC log, the Glasgow Warriors will not consider themselves to be anyone’s underdogs this season. 

Despite succumbing to a defeat away to Munster last weekend, Franco Smith’s charges will back themselves to make a run at the playoffs this season. 

Should things break right for them, a place in the quarterfinals is realistic target. 

Capable of beating anyone on their day, Glasgow is reminiscent of Ulster in that the Warriors clearly have talent but just have the occasional slip-up. 

Outside of five maul tries against Munster, their much-vaunted attack pitched a no-show a week after thumping Ulster. 

This clearly will be an area Smith and his coaching staff will look to work on throughout the pool stages to avoid a knockout slip-up. 

Playing on the lightning-fast track at Scotstoun Stadium, the Warriors will look to run opponents of the park, especially the bigger packs of the Top 14 sides. 

Prediction: Quarterfinals