The BKT URC season is upon us. A delayed start to the championship but this is an intriguing season for numerous reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the season and casts his eye on the personnel changes for the participating teams.
All eight top-ranked teams from the 2023/24 league table will qualify for the Investec Champions Cup with the remaining sides taking their place in the EPCR Challenge Cup. This is in contrast to previous seasons where the shield winners secured automatic qualification. If historical trends prevail, there would be no Italian or Welsh club representation. Benetton Rugby may be the dark horse to break that prediction.
Benetton Rugby flirted with the playoffs at regular points during last season but squad depth issues during 6N were decisive. They have looked to rectify that situation with some astute signings.
Malaki Fekitoa arrives from Munster Rugby and will bolster the three quarters depth chart and will provide immediate go forward ball. I like some other signings in Andy Uren, Edoardo Iachizzi and Eil Snyman. The league needs Benetton to be competitive and secure playoff rugby so it will be interesting to see how the side start this campaign.
Zebre Rugby had a season to forget. Eighteen games without a win. It was not for the want of trying but the squad depth was exposed early and often. There has been concerted efforts to bolster the squad for the upcoming season.
Jake Polledri, Fetuli Paea, Scott Gregory, Luca Morisi look astute acquisitions. The aim is clear; win a fixture in the championship early. Playoffs look unrealistic but the hope is that the Zebre Parma side are more competitive than before.
Connacht Rugby enter a new head coaching with Pete Wilkins at the helm who took over Andy Friend in the offseason. Wilkins backroom team is significantly changed from last season with several departures. Scott Fardy, John Muldoon and Mark Sexton join the backroom staff.
Kieran Marmion has departed for Bristol Bears but the arrivals of Joe Joyce and Sean Jansen in the pack are astute signings. Both will elevate the pack depth chart performance to new levels. Santiago Cordero was the standout back line signing but a serious knee injury will see the Argentine player sidelined for a significant part of the season.
Optimism is high within Connacht Rugby to reach the playoffs yet again but with a new coaching ticket installed, cohesion issues early may be observed. A team who should continue to run a dynamic game plan which Bundee Aki will relish when he returns from an impressive World Cup showing.
JJ Hanrahan’s arrival to Connacht Rugby may be one of the most astute signings of the off-season. A proven performer who can fill multiple back field positions. A player who will push those along him to new performance levels. Connacht Rugby have identified key targets well in the close season.
Leinster Rugby preseason has been unique with so many front line players and coaching staff on World Cup duty. Johnny Sexton has departed the ball club so the succession plans for the ten jersey will soon be answered. Ross Byrne looked the incumbent but there are viable options in the highly rated Sam Prendergast, Harry Byrne, Ciaran Frawley and Charlie Tector.
This team have been the baseline that all other BKT URC teams have evaluated themselves on for years. This assessment process will not change given the squad depth in all units and with a flourishing youth academy seeing five players step up to senior ranks, this is the side to beat this season in the championship.
The backroom staff will see a new change alongside Leo Cullen. Jacques Nienaber will assume his role with the ball club once the World Cup concludes. Nienaber replaces Stuart Lancaster who accepted the head coaching role at Racing 92 this season. Leinster Rugby always looking ahead. Nienaber will provide massive knowledge in defensive schemes and pack setup to push this side over the line in grand finals.
The momentum generated from winning road trip games is contagious and so it proved for Munster Rugby. The air miles to South Africa were ultimately worth it as Munster Rugby went all the way last season to BKT URC final glory. It was an unexpected triumph given the trials and tribulations of the start of the season where a new management and team struggled for cohesion early.
Graham Rowntree and backroom staff are a year down the road. Munster Rugby are far from the finished article and this season intends to build on the potential seen with ball in hand at different parts of last season. The pack platform has been upgraded with the return of John Ryan from Waikato Chiefs. Ryan’s experience will be key to elevate the set piece.
With Ben Healy now at Edinburgh, the ten jersey battle becomes more intriguing. Jack Crowley was the man for the playoff push but Joey Carbery still has big ambitions for the ten jersey. The question will be depth chart when Crowley returns to the Ireland fold. Alex Nankivell is an astute signing, a big ball carrier whose footwork and skill set will create for a back line who came to life in the playoffs with Calvin Nash outstanding.
The key question for Munster Rugby is prop and ten depth chart. Loans may be required at various points to mitigate injuries or international camps. The absence of Keith Earls from the playing group will be a big blow but Andrew Conway and Simon Zebo should provide experience to a back line depth chart who have more potential to impress. An intriguing season awaits the men from Munster and those interpros will be an acid test of their league credentials either side of Christmas.
A massively frustrating season for Ulster Rugby last season. A superb start was derailed with a significant loss to Leinster Rugby in the RDS. The side rescued their league season with a strong end to the regular season but then came up short at home to Connacht Rugby. All rigid and too structured.
The off-season has seen significant departures with Murphy, Gilroy, Vermeulen, Madigan and Sutherland on a list of experienced players moving on. Steven Kitshoff is the marquee signing from the Stormers and the front row unit is elevated immediately. Dave Ewers will provide a nice second row / back row addition to the squad with several players stepping up from the academy.
Ulster Rugby’s front five looks formidable and expect Tom Stewart to continue to flourish at hooker alongside Steven Kitshoff. The question for Ulster Rugby is can they evolve their attack with more creativity. The attacking game plan was too structured last season. Nathan Doak is a nine but will management look to tinker on a real standout young prospect? Management must get it right this season.
Edinburgh Rugby wielded the personnel axe after a disappointing league campaign. They failed to get into the playoff picture with all aspects of play struggling to make the cut. Immelman, Pyrgos, Haining and van der Walt leading the players who departed the ball club.
Ben Healy arrives from Munster Rugby. The arrivals to the senior squad have an young age profile with several academy players featuring. This looks like a season of transition for Edinburgh until the undoubted potential of the young recruits catch fire early. An exciting expansive side when in full flow, it remains to be seen if Edinburgh’s pack will stand-up to the elite teams in the competition.
Glasgow Warriors end of season was a massive disappointment. It is no point saying otherwise. The hopes were high for an extended URC playoff run but that was quickly extinguished by Munster Rugby in Scotstoun. The Challenge Cup final was a chastening experience as Toulon secured a comfortable final victory.
Recruitment on the pitch has been kept to a minimum with Henco Venter arriving from the Sharks. Kyle Rowe and Logan Trotter will look to impress management early to stake a claim for a matchday squad early in the season. There has been notable departures with Sam Johnson, Ryan Wilson, Simon Berghan (retired) leaving the club. A team who will compete, make Scotstoun a fortress so would presume a playoff berth is the aim.
Bulls have lost some massive characters in the dressing room. Morne Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis leave the sport with their legacies secured for decades to come. Sbu Nkosi release is a disappointment for the club. The recruitment has been extensive this season with Henry Immelman, Jannes Kirsten, Akker van der Merwe, Wilco Louw and Willie le Roux heading the list of arrivals. A playoff bound team and with a point to prove after last season.
Lions were a massive disappointment last season given the squad investment. They were never in the playoff picture. Five arrivals and five departures from the squad. It is hard to see the Lions contend for a playoff berth unless they can improve their all round game. Zander du Plessis will be an exciting watch if given game time at ten.
Sharks massively underperformed in the league last season. The shutout loss to Cardiff Blues was a low point for the team. Siya Kolisi, Thomas du Toit, Ben Tapuai lead the list of players who have left the club. Vincent Koch is the marquee signing from Stade Francais and will elevate the front row unit. Francois Hougaard (short-term deal) is an interesting watch. The pack platform lacked the back line cohesion last season. It remains to be seen if the side have solved that equation with new backroom staff personnel.
Stormers look again to be the leading South African side in the league. A grand final loss last season to Munster Rugby should not deflect from an excellent league campaign. Steven Kitshoff and Marvin Orie are key departures from the pack but Warrick Gelant’s arrival from Racing 92 should see more fireworks in the back field. A team who know their identify and game plan and will have a big say in the league come next May.
Cardiff offseason has mirrored that of the rest of the regions. Investment funding cut, marquee player departures, coaching staff personnel issues. It has been a stressful time to get a squad assembled for this weekend. The departures are endless here with marquee players moving to England, Japan and USA.
The pack depth chart has been depleted to breaking down. A season where the club will look to build team cohesion with the squad assembled and then focus on season goals thereafter. Squad depth chart looks light and we are not even in the 6N fixture block.
Dragons struggled despite a promising start to the league. A home win against Munster Rugby should have been a catalyst to propel their season forward but it failed to materialise languishing in the lower depths of the league.
Will Rowlands has departed the club to join Racing 92 in twelve player departures but the club have secured Dan Lydiate to provide experience to a youthful pack unit. It is tough to see any playoff aspirations. The aim will be to build Rodney Parade as a fortress and take it from there.
Ospreys like Cardiff have lost significant player leadership and talent in the off-season. Wyn Jones, Webb, Myler, Lydiate, Davies, Evans and the list goes on. A massive turnover of players from last season. Dom Morris leads the arrivals but the roster is depleted. There is no point saying otherwise here. A tough season lies in wait for Ospreys unless the young talent in the ball club can step up to the mark consistently which is a massive ask.
Scarlets are no different to Ospreys and Cardiff in terms of their offseason player personnel matters. Significant player talent has been released or released. Kalamafoni, Halfpenny, John lead the list of departures. The arrivals are unproven but Taine Plumtree is an exciting flanker who will be a nice addition to the league. His breakdown work is excellent. The Welsh regions are in trouble and it is bad news for the league.
Leinster Rugby, Ospreys, Glasgow Warriors and Stormers.
Leinster Rugby, Stormers, Munster Rugby, Ulster Rugby, Glasgow Warriors, Connacht Rugby, Bulls, Sharks.