United Rugby Championship

United Rugby Championship Power Rankings, Week 1 Preview

United Rugby Championship Power Rankings, Week 1 Preview

Check out the 2022 United Rugby Championship Week One Power Rankings.

Sep 14, 2022 by RugbyPass
United Rugby Championship Power Rankings, Week 1 Preview

With just two days to go until the return of the 2022 United Rugby Championship, it's time to take a look at how the sides shape up ahead of kickoff.

In what promises to be a jam packed season, the battle for the URC title looks to be closer than ever with very little separating the top sides. 

1. Leinster 

Eight-time champion Leinster was given a lesson at home in the semifinals by the Bulls last season. 

On the back of a bitterly disappointing Champions Cup final defeat just two weeks prior, Leinster gave a number of younger players a start. 

Not to say Leinster underestimated the Bulls, but the injection of senior figures, Johnny Sexton in particular, in the second half, saw the Dubliners storm back into the contest. 

Leo Cullen's squad will have the Bulls defeat burning in the back of their minds all season and will use it as motivation to unleash their trademark relentless physicality and pace.

In the bigger picture, the injection of South African sides into the tournament could prove to be just what Leinster needs to keep it sharp at the tail end of the season, rather than resting players, as they have been able to do for the past five seasons.

 2. Sharks

Perhaps the busiest side in the recruitment game this offseason, Sharks Director of Rugby Neil Powell and head coach Sean Everitt have put together a stacked squad. 

Led by arguably the best center in the world in Lukhanyo Am, the Sharks possess an international-quality pack that includes Springbok captain Siya Kolisi, Test Centurion Eben Etzabeth and Fifty Cap Hero Bongi Mbonambi to name a few. 

Joining Am in the backline is Springbok flier Makazole Mapimpi, Bok scrumhalf Jaden Hendrikse and 7s star Werner Kok. 

The Sharks star power this season is undeniable. The challenge, as always, is can they produce when it matters? Having come up short against the arch rivals the Bulls in the quarterfinal at Loftus Versfeld, home advantage in the knockouts is a must for the Sharks this season.

3. Stormers

Not to disrespect last year’s champions, but it felt as though a few breaks went their way toward the tail end of the season. 

A narrow victory at home over Ulster in the semifinal, before a Bulls upset of Leinster paved the way for a home final at Cape Town Stadium.

No doubting the Stormers were fantastic last season, but competing in the Champions Cup this season truly will test their depth. 

The emergence of Damian Willemse as a world-class talent in the backline and Evan Roos as a Springbok No. 8 is a huge development for the Cape Town squad. Head coach John Dobson has a real knack for bringing through talent, with several young, exciting prospects once again on the squad this season.

The biggest challenge facing the Stormers this season is their depth, as they will compete in the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time. 

A notoriously brutal tournament, all of the South African sides will be on a level playing field with their URC compatriots, as they battle on two fronts. This will force Dobson and the other South African coaches to rotate their squads significantly more than last season.

4. Munster

Leinster’s southern rivals enter this season with a new coaching staff, as Munster Director of Rugby Johan van Graan has moved on to English Premiership side Bath.

In his place, comes forwards coach Graham Rowntree, who did a sterling job with the Munster pack last season. The former England international knows what it takes to win at the top level, having enjoyed a highly successful playing career, before going on to be involved with a number of successful teams as a coach.

The big question mark facing Munster this season is who will be wearing the No. 10 shirt.

Joey Carbery looks set to be leading the pack, but the emergence of Ben Healy and Jack Crowley is a very promising development for a side  that has been crying out for a fly-half since Ronan O’Gara retired in 2013. 

Tipped by many as the heir apparent to Jonathan Sexton at international level, injuries have curtailed Carbery’s career since the 2019 World Cup. Keep an eye on Carbery being deployed at fullback at points throughout the season, as Rowntree looks to give exposure to the two young flyhalves, while getting valuable minutes into Carbery.

On the transfer front former All Black Malaki Fekitoa’s signing is a major coup for Munster, as it looks to fill the void left by Springbok Damian De Allende, who has departed for the Japanese Top league.

5. Bulls

Last year’s losing finalists will be very confident of kicking on this season. 

Led by World Cup-winning coach Jake White, the Bulls possess one of the biggest packs in the tournament, as well as arguably the best back three in the game. 

Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse’s explosions onto the international scene for the Springboks is a testament to the good work being done by the Bulls. Joining the dynamic duo in the back three is fellow Springbok Sbu Nkosi, who has signed from the Sharks in what was the Bulls biggest signing this offseason.

In the pack, Elrigh Louw made his Bok debut this season and looks to be the real deal in the backrow. This is a particular area of strength, as Louw joins captain Marcell Coetzee, Marco van Staden, Arno Botha and Jacques du Plessis, offering White possibly the biggest backrow options in World Rugby.

6. Ulster 

A losing semifinalist last season, Ireland’s northern province came within a few minutes of knocking over the eventual champion Stormers in Cape Town. 

Alas, it was not to be for Dan McFarland’s squad, as they fell gut-wrenchingly close once again to winning a tournament.  

On its, day Ulster can beat any team in the league, as it possesses some truly world class players. 

Led by British and Irish Lion Ian Henderson, the Ulstermen have both the pack and backline to win the tournament. The challenge has been consistency, and perhaps more crucially, getting over the top of Leinster. 

In the backline, this Ulster side is stacked with Irish internationals, several of whom have plenty to prove as they play second fiddle to their Leinster and Munster counterparts. 

In a World Cup season, players such as James Hume, Robert Baloucoune, John Cooney and Michael Lowry have the potential to put cricket scores on opposing defenses, as they press their case for more international game time.

7. Connacht

Ireland’s fourth province doesn’t quite get the plaudits of its local rivals. 

Seen by many as the forgotten province, Connacht is the most recent of the Irish provinces outside of Leinster to lift silverware, having won the Pro 12 in 2016.

Head coach Andy Friend understands the challenges facing Connacht and has turned his team into a galvanizing call to arms. 

Leading the way is the world-class Irish international duo of Bundee Aki and Mack Hansen, both of whom played a crucial win in Ireland’s historic series win in New Zealand.

In the forwards, Cian Prendergast has the potential to become the next Connacht legend in the mold of former captain John Muldoon. 

Elsewhere, Finlay Bealham, Caolin Blade, Jack Carty and Tiernan O’Halloran will be hoping to put themselves in the minds of Ireland coach Andy Farrell, as he looks to build depth ahead of the World Cup.

8. Edinburgh 

Ever improving Edinburgh has supplanted Glasgow as Scotland’s top side heading into this season.

The loss of Edinburgh Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill, who has moved onto to join England head coach Eddie Jones's staff is significant. 

In his place, comes Scottish legend Mike Blair, who takes on his first head coaching role, having spent five seasons as an assistant coach with the Scottish national team.

Edinburgh has plenty of quality all over the park. When fit and healthy, Edinburgh can put out an all-international starting XV. The challenge will be when injuries strike as the season rolls on.

As far as dark-horse bets go, Edinburgh has got the potential to make a playoff run, should things break right. 

9. Glasgow

Previously Leinster’s biggest challenger, Glasgow has regressed since Dave Rennie left to coach the Wallabies.

During Rennie’s tenure, Glasgow was a regular contender, like it was under Gregor Townsend before him. Having last won a title in 2015, when they defeated Munster with Finn Russell and Stuart Hogg pulling the strings, success is long overdue for the Warriors.

Joining them this season is former Italy head coach Franco Smith, who brings with him an attacking philosophy that suits Glasgow’s ambitions.

10. Lions

Regarded as South Africa’s top franchise in the not-too-distant past, the Lions are a step behind their countrymen.

Led by a relatively inexperienced coaching staff in comparison to the other SA sides, the Lions found it tough going last season, as they finished outside the playoffs in 12th position.

Heading into this season, there is hope around some of their youngsters breaking through. 

Leading the way is fly-half Jordan Hendrikse, who has seen his brother rise to No. 1 in the Springboks scrumhalf depth chart.

A talented player with ball in hand, Hendrikse will be looking to put himself into the shop window for the international coaches, as fly-half remains perhaps the Boks weakest area in terms of depth. 

11. Cardiff

The Welsh capital side have added some very important pieces this offseason, as the British and Irish Lions duo of Toby Faletau and Liam Williams join the Blues. 

Other notable signings include Welsh international Thomas Young and former Wallaby turned Tongan International Lopeti Timani. 

Like the rest of the Welsh regions, Cardiff faces plenty of uncertainty off the field, with a restructure of the professional club game in Wales currently under review. 

As the capital city side, they perhaps are the most secure in terms of avoiding the proposed joining of regions, this does not, however, mean changes won’t come if their performances don’t improve. 

12. Ospreys 

Historically a powerhouse region, the Ospreys have seen their fortunes slip in recent years. 

Having won the title four times during the Celtic League/Pro12 era, the last of which came in 2011-2012 season, the region's fans are yearning for a return to the top table.

Of that title winning team, a number of players still are on the Ospreys squad. 

Leading the charge is captain Justin Tipuric, who is joined by Welsh and Lions legend Alun Wyn Jones, Rhys Webb and Scott Baldwin, all of whom will be gunning to add another title before their careers wind down. 

For head coach Toby Booth this is his second season in charge, having finished in a disappointing ninth position last year, his side will need to show a marked improvement in Year 2 to challenge the big Irish and South African sides.

13. Scarlets

The last Welsh region to win a title, which came in the 2016-2017 season, the Scarlets have slipped significantly since head coach Wayne Pivac left to take over the Welsh national side.

Now coached by former Welsh star Dwayne Peel, the Scarlets have the talent to compete with any side in the competition. 

As with all of the Welsh regions, the issue facing them is depth, most notably in the fly-half position. Outside of Rhys Patchell, the position group lacks experience at the highest level. 

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however, as former Welsh U20 star Sam Costelow is a real up-and-coming talent behind Patchell.

14. Benetton Treviso 

The team was dealt a tough blow, with superstar winger Monty Ioane leaving the club to return to his native Australia this offseason.  

Led by the legendary Marco Bortolami, Benetton has recruited some real talent in the offseason, which will look to offset Ioane’s departure. 

Up front, Benetton possess a strong pack and now has a real talent in the form of Argentinean fly-half Tomás Albornoz. Now a fully-fledged international, the 24-year-old will be looking to put himself in the shop window for Europe’s biggest clubs with a strong season.

15. Dragons 

A real risk of being cut from professional rugby ahead of the 2023-2024 season, the Dragons are playing for their future this season.

Welsh Rugby announced in May its plan to revert to having three professional teams competing in the URC. 

In the Dragons favor is the fact that they are owned by the Welsh Rugby Union, rather than a private investor. This does not preclude them from being cut of combining with another region, though.

On the playing front, the accusation of former Munster fly-half JJ Hanrahan was a big scoop for the Dragons. Having enjoyed stints at Northampton Saints and Clermont Auvergne, Hanrahan brings with him oodles of experience.

The most exciting prospects in the squad are the Welsh international backrow duo of Taine Basham and Aaron Wainwright. Both players have burst onto the season over the past few seasons and are crucial to the Dragons fortunes this season. 

16. Zebre 

Last season’s whipping boys with just a single win, the going once again is going to be tough for Zebre. 

Despite possessing some talented individuals, Zebre remains so far off the pace of the other teams in the competition (outside of the Dragons). 

Zebre’s strongest position group is scrumhalf, where it has two international scrumhalves, as well as seasoned Premiership and former England sevens player, Chris Cook. 

While the star power in this squad is negligible, there are a number of young players coming through the squad who should see game time. 

Should a handful of these players show potential, Zebre’s fortunes might not be so bleak.

Written by Philip Bendon