United Rugby Championship

One Key Point For Each United Rugby Championship Side Heading Into 2024

One Key Point For Each United Rugby Championship Side Heading Into 2024

Unlocking the URC's Second Half: Dive into key team strategies and challenges. Leinster's defensive woes, Benetton's scoring puzzle and more revealed here.

Jan 5, 2024 by Philip Bendon
One Key Point For Each United Rugby Championship Side Heading Into 2024

As the world turns over a new leaf and we leave behind 2023, the United Rugby Championship gets set to begin the second half of its 2023-2024 season. 

For the majority of the league, nine of the scheduled 18 regular-season rounds are in the books. As ever, the story of the first half of the season does not dictate exactly what will unfold down the stretch, but several key patterns have begun to emerge. 

With this being said, here is one key point for each URC team heading into the second half of the season: 

1. Leinster 

The Dubliners find themselves in a familiar position atop the table at the midway point of the season. 

Losing just two of its opening nine fixtures, Leinster once again has proven it is the class of the regular season, yet Leo Cullen and his troops know this will count for nothing come the knockout rounds. 

Having topped the log the past two seasons, only to be stymied in its home semifinals, Leinster will be itching to right the wrongs of seasons past. 

Welcoming double World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber as a replacement for the departing Stuart Lancaster was rightly regarded as a masterstroke by Cullen. 

Key among Nienaber’s calling cards is a much-heralded rush defensive system, which already has played a key role in securing victories over Munster and La Rochelle this season. 

Yet, in the final act of 2023, Ulster exposed the system with a rather brilliant short-to-intermediate kicking game. Finding ample space beyond the onrushing defense, Ulster scored three kick tries to secure a 22-21 win at the RDS. 

Thus, the biggest concern for Leinster will be how exposed the team looked behind the front line. Add into the mix a poor tackle completion rate, which ranks 12th in the league at 87%, and it is clear that this will be the biggest area of focus for Cullen’s side in 2024. 

2. Benetton 

The surprise package of 2023, Marco Bortolami’s side is sitting pretty in second place heading into 2024. 

Losing just once in the league thus far this season, Benetton has closed out six one-score matches and is sitting with a rather modest +31 points differential. 

There's no doubt it is a supremely positive development for Benetton to be closing out fixtures; the club ranks 14th in total attack so far. 

This inability to score points consistently in close contests could prove to be the team's undoing, as Benetton's schedule only gets tougher from here. 

Defensively, Benetton ranks eighth but is a menace at the breakdown with 62 turnovers this season, which ranks second and oftentimes has proven to be the difference. 

Overall, Benetton is more than worthy of its position on the table and looks every bit ready to be a playoff side, but will need to sharpen its attack to be a contender. 

3. Glasgow Warriors 

The league’s most well-balanced side with the fourth-ranked attack and second-ranked defense, the Warriors are living up to their billing as title contenders through the first half of the season. 

Possessing a lethal driving maul, a strong scrum and a lethal strike attack, Franco Smith’s side has all the ingredients to push for a deep playoff run. 

There are, however, two areas of real concern for the Warriors as they head into 2024.

The first area is their discipline, where they rank 12th in yellow cards, 14th in penalties conceded and 12th in line-out offences. 

Elsewhere, their defense in the wider channels, and while scrambling, arguably has been the reason for their losses to Connacht, Munster and Edinburgh. On all three occasions, they were found wanting out wide, with crucial scores being conceded. 

This would appear to be linked to their up-and-in defensive system, which looks to shut down options early, but does leave the wide channels exposed. While they are unlikely to change their system, it will be interesting to see if there is an adjustment to rectify the clear area of weakness. 

4. Ulster

Arguably the toughest club to judge, the one unquantifiable area Ulster can improve is its consistency. 

On any given day, Dan McFarland’s team has the potential to be the best in the league, yet in equal measures, it is susceptible to falling to a head-scratching loss. 

Now on a run of three consecutive wins, which comes on the back of three losses, Ulster looks to have turned a corner. Yet, in reality, it is difficult to feel confident that this change in fortunes will remain for the rest of the season, given the team's track record. 

Next up are two immensely challenging Investec Champions Cup clashes against Toulouse and Harlequins, before a return to the URC. If Ulster can win both of these fixtures and return to the URC full of confidence, then the world is Ulster's oyster. 

5. Edinburgh 

Like the team above, Edinburgh is brutally difficult to assess on a week-to-week basis. 

With a run of results dating back to the beginning of November that reads as LWWLWLWLW, Edinburgh’s season could go either way. 

The biggest question for the squad in 2024 will be if the roster has enough depth to sustain a title run.

In particular, the fly-half position is a real area of concern, if starter Ben Healy were to pick up an injury. 

Having seen one of its brightest home-grown talents, Blair Kinghorn, depart toToulouse, the talent behind Edinburgh’s starters is a level below its main competitors. 

If fit and healthy, Edinburgh is a tough out for anyone, but with so much rugby still to play, the concerns around depth should not be discounted. 

6. Vodacom Bulls 

There is really only one question for the Bulls heading into 2024 - can they finally beat the Stormers? 

Having lost every encounter to their arch-rivals since the inception of the competition, Jake White will be racking his brain as to how he can topple John Dobson’s men. 

Hosting their rivals in Round 11 is the perfect opportunity to bring to an end the losing streak. 

If they fail to do so, it likely will be another season where they are the second-best South African side and will in all likelihood, have to go on the road in the playoffs. Should they win and push toward a home run through the playoffs, they will be a tough nut to crack.   

7. DHL Stormers 

The league’s most successful side has begun its rise from obscurity, having suffered a torrid run of four consecutive losses during a tour of the Northern Hemisphere. 

Now undefeated at home in Cape Town, the Stormers look to be getting their house in order, albeit around a mini-injury crisis. 

Unusually, for the Cape Townians, their biggest concern will be around their scrum, which so often has been a weapon. Since the departure of club captain Steven Kitshoff to Ulster, the Stormers have ranked 11th in the scrum and the line-out. 

Most concerningly is their last-place ranking in terms of scrums won. If they are unable to rectify this, it will make reclaiming the crown they lost to Munster a real challenge. 

8. Ospreys 

Toby Booth’s side has been gradually climbing this season and looks to, by and large, have the numbers of its Welsh rivals.

Defeating Scarlets twice and beating Cardiff, the Ospreys lone derby loss came against the Dragons. The Ospreys look ready to fly the Welsh flag this season. 

The biggest challenges will be their away games to the Bulls, Stormers, Edinburgh and Leinster, as well as clashes with Munster and Ulster. 

Depth, as is the case with the other three Welsh regions, is a challenge, but when it comes to front-line talent, the Ospreys have a sublime young group of players. 

Booth already has shown he is willing to back young players, and while this looks to be a squad for the future, they very much are quarterfinal contenders this season. 

9. Connacht

The 2015-2016 Pro 14 champions have had a tough run in recent weeks, with three consecutive losses being sparked by a last-minute loss to Leinster. 

Two heavy defeats in the Champions Cup all but ended their campaign in that competition, but a tight win over Munster on New Year’s Day has them back in the win column. 

Pete Wilkins has a squad of young talent with few marquee names outside of Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen, Finlay Bealham and Cian Prendergast. This presents challenges on the rotational front, given how influential the four players are to the squad. 

Unfortunately, they appear to have lost the world-class Hansen to a shoulder injury, which is a significant blow to their chances. Yet, given their not-too-arduous run into the season, they still have the feel of a team that will make the top 8 when it is all said and done. 

The biggest question for them will be, can they secure a win or two on the road against Cardiff, Benetton, Munster or Leinster? If they can’t, then it will make qualification awfully challenging. 

10. Munster 

No side in recent memory has endured the injury run that the reigning champions currently find themselves in. 

At the time of this writing, at least 20 first-team players are out injured, many of whom are front-line starters. 

Every week, it appears as though Munster players are getting ready to undergo surgery in what is an unfortunate set of circumstances for a side that is good enough to defend its title. 

With two big Investec Champions Cup fixtures coming in the next few weeks, there is a genuine question about what sort of side Graham Rowntree can put out. 

Elsewhere, the Munster line-out and maul defense have been a disaster, but in reality, this likely is linked to the injuries. Unfortunately for Munster, its fortunes likely are somewhat out of its hands until the team can get some bodies back in the squad. If they can do this, then do not be surprised if they make a run up the table. 

11. Cardiff 

Hot and cold is the only accurate way to sum up the men from the Welsh capital. 

When on song, they are an electric attacking outfit, with Mason Grady arguably the MVP of the season to date. 

Cardiff's biggest issue is that it is the opposite of Benetton when it comes to one-score games, having lost six of eight one-score games, with one draw in the mix. 

Thus, the biggest question is whether Cardiff can turn this trend around.

The next five rounds will be tough, with the clashes against the four Irish provinces and a meeting with Glasgow on the cards. 

12. Emirates Lions 

Arguably the most underrated team in the league, the Lions had a tough start to the season, losing their opening three fixtures by a combined eight points, before defeating Scarlets away and ending their year with a seven-point loss to Ulster. 

Like their neighbors from Pretoria, the Lions are a tough challenge for anyone in Johannesburg and generally put a big score on traveling teams. 

The biggest question mark for the high-tempo outfit is it can pick off a couple of wins against their countrymen. If they can do this, then a path to the playoffs will emerge with several home games remaining on the schedule. 

13. Scarlets

The first team on the list that are realistically out of post-season contention, the Scarlets will look to develop their young emerging talent for the remainder of the season. At Flyhalf, the two young guns, Sam Costelow and Ioan Llyod, both look to have bright futures. In the pack, giant number eight Carwyn Tuipulotu comes from incredible rugby stock and will look to replicate his cousin Taulupe Faletau in pulling on the red jersey of Wales. 

14. Zebre 

Wins, wins, wins - that is all that matters for Zebre in 2024, ending a hideously long losing run earlier in the season against the Sharks. 

The Italians really need to pick up at least one more win to have any argument that this has been a season of genuine progress. 

Two clashes against the Dragons would appear to be their best bet. Can they do it? They certainly have the ability, but it is anything but a lock. 

15. Dragons RFC 

At some point, their talent will tell.

For a squad that has a handful of regular Welsh internationals, two wins is not really good enough. 

Facing a not-all-too-daunting second half of the season, the Dragons should be aiming for at least four, possibly five, more wins to close out the season. 

For this to happen, their pack will need to gain some parity from which to launch some attacks, as they rank 15th in scrums, discipline and defense, while sitting at the bottom of the attacking charts in 16th place. 

16. Hollywoodbets Sharks 

Far and away the most disappointing team in the URC and professional club rugby this season, this is a squad stacked with Rugby World Cup-winning Springboks but seemingly lacking any direction.

The Sharks have just a single win in the league this year. 

Sitting with a points difference of -31 is somewhat misleading, given they scored 69 points against the Dragons in their lone win. 

Realistically, this is a lost season for the Sharks, who should target winning their remaining home games and budding young talent as they look to start again in the 2024-2025 season.