United Rugby Championship: Ireland review after all teams qualify for the play-offs
The 2022/23 United Rugby Championship (URC) season was a promising one for all the Irish teams, who represented strongly throughout.
All four provinces qualified for the Champions Cup, with Leinster and Ulster finishing as the tournament’s top two sides following the regular season.
The clubs’ performance aligns with Test level success for Ireland and underlines the healthy state of rugby in the country.
The exciting aspect of it all for Ireland fans is that their four teams could well improve and better their seasons in the play-offs.
There has been a response of epic proportions from the Irish giants after a trophyless season last term. This time around, the side showed impressive class throughout and thoroughly deserve to finish the regular season as leaders of the table.
Leinster lost only one game all season as the Bulls handed a young squad the club’s biggest defeat in history.
That sounds terrible, but the reality is the team left all their superstars in Dublin because the results had no influence on their table position. Leo Cullen and his team earned the right to send an inexperienced group.
The squad has superior depth in just about every position and are deadly with or without their Grand Slam-winners.
Every aspect of Leinster’s game is loaded with meticulous attention to detail, resulting in pure execution more often than not.
Ross Byrne grew tremendously at fly-half when veteran Johnny Sexton was unavailable. His form earned him time in an Ireland shirt, only making him a better player.
Rhys Ruddock was a constant all season long as a leader and loose forward. When available he was joined by superstars Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris.
In the backline, Garry Ringrose has looked particularly dangerous around the plethora of Ireland internationals. Whatever position one considers there is world-class talent. A 17-game win streak does not happen by accident, and Leinster deserve huge praise for their efforts in the regular season.
This season Leinster completely dominated and sent a powerful reminder to the whole league of their outstanding quality. Cullen’s side have put themselves in a position where the only way to winning this season’s title is to find a way to beat Leinster in Dublin – a feat which will be ridiculously difficult.
The Dublin men welcome the Sharks to their home turf for the quarter-finals of the URC.
The Belfast side had another good season in the URC and actually improved on their previous campaign, showing their class along the way.
Ulster snatched second spot on the table late on in the campaign as the Stormers left the door open in the final two rounds of the regular season. They finished with nine more points this year, winning 12 of 18 games in a very satisfactory effort.
Hooker Tom Stewart burst onto the scene and showcased his try-scoring prowess by crossing for a whopping 16 tries in a record-breaking campaign. That is a truly astounding effort, and the star could well be in line for one of the players of the season.
The Ulster pack was rock solid all season long, particularly in the set-piece where they squashed most opponents. Duane Vermeulen contributed heavily as one of the leaders and finished with a team-high 13 turnovers.
Scrum-half John Cooney was consistent throughout and scored over a century of points whilst the return to form of Jacob Stockdale was a welcome sight for Ulster fans.
Consistency and stability are the operative words describing a successful regular season for Ulster. Now the team has a great chance to go all the way to the final and push for some silverware. The side goes up against rivals Connacht in the quarter-finals.
It has been a serious roller-coaster of a season for Munster, who initially struggled with the changes in the club but later found momentum.
Former director of rugby Johann van Graan left at the end of last season with Graham Rowntree taking over the hot seat.
The start of Rowntree’s tenure was filled with inconsistency and poor results. Things seemed dire heading in the year-end international window but a memorable victory over South Africa ‘A’ proved a turning point for the Irish province.
From then on the side found their footing and grew in confidence. Munster ended up fifth on the table but carry huge momentum into the play-offs after snapping the Stormers’ 19-game win streak in Cape Town and stealing a draw against the Sharks in the final round.
The team only finished with one more point than last year but won fewer games along the way to securing Champions Cup qualification again.
Number eight Gavin Coombes was absolutely massive for the Irish team, finishing with the most tries (10) and a mind-blowing 188 carries, which was also a team-high. Peter O’Mahony proved typically valuable for Munster, particularly at the back end of the season.
Joey Carbery, however, has fallen down the pecking order with both the national side and at Munster as Jack Crowley is now leading at 10 whilst Ben Healy made very valuable contributions throughout in his farewell season.
The return of RG Snyman brought additional dynamism, aggression and physicality to their pack. The Springbok could be a key player in the postseason.
Munster and Rowntree will be happy with their season. There was always going to be a period of adjustment, but now the side have found their rhythm and enter the play-offs with great momentum which will be crucial against Glasgow Warriors in the quarter-finals.
The Galway club is probably the most improved side of all the Irish teams after they finished in seventh position, earning themselves Champions Cup qualification.
Connacht finished four places higher this season with nine more points and one more win as a late-season burst ensured their spot in the post-season.
Their improved season featured several memorable wins, with a home victory against the Sharks one of their notable performances.
Scrum-half Caolin Blade had an excellent campaign scoring 11 tries and leading the way for Connacht whilst Tom Farrell was the team leader in clean breaks (11), defenders beaten (37) and successful carries (130).
Connacht’s late burst up the leaderboard means that all the Irish side qualified for the Champions Cup and still have a chance to push for the title.
It will be a challenge for the Galway men who face the high-flying Ulster in the quarter-finals.
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