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URC pre-season report card: A team-by-team look at all 16 sides

By Simon Thomas
URC winners Munster in action against rivals Leinster

While most of the focus is currently on the Rugby World Cup semi-finals in France, the 2023/24 BKT United Rugby Championship season gets under way this weekend.


Ahead of the first round of games, here’s a comprehensive team-by-team guide to all the teams taking part in the competition.

Benetton Rugby

The team from Treviso have gone well in pre-season with three straight victories, including wins over Ulster and Perpignan, while new recruits Malakai Fekitoa and Paolo Odogwu will add potency behind the scrum.

Home ground: Stadio Monigo

Last season: 11th

Coach: Marco Bortolami

Star turn:
Michele Lamaro – The Italian skipper leads by example with his tireless endeavour in the mould of another inspirational back row captain of the Azzurri, one Sergio Parisse.

Rising talent:
Tommaso Menoncello – It was a real shame the 21-year-old missed the World Cup with a bicep injury because he is such a threat with ball in hand either in the centre or on the wing.

Players in:
Malakai Fekitoa (Munster)
Paolo Odogwu (Stade Français)
Andy Uren (Bristol)
Edoardo Iachizzi (Vannes)
Giosuè Zilocchi (London Irish)
Eli Snyman (Leicester)
Gideon Koegelenberg (Kurita Water Gush Akishima)
Mirco Spagnolo (Petrarca)
Nicolò Casilio (Colorno)
Argentina Santiago Ruiz (Argentina Pampas)

Players out:
Carl Wegner (Cheetahs)
Cherif Traorè (Mont-de-Marsan)
Nicola Piantella (Zebre)
Enzo Avaca (Mogliano)
Giuliano Avaca (Mogliano)
Matteo Meggiato (Rovigo)
Mattia BellinI (Petrarca)
Matteo Drudi (Fiamme Oro)
Braam Steyn (released)
Manuel Arroyo (released)
Manfredi Albanese (retired)
Corniel Els (retired)

Cardiff Rugby

There’s been a lot of change at the Arms Park. Matt Sherratt has stepped up from his assistant’s role following the departure of Director of Rugby Dai Young, while a number of high-profile players have moved on. New South African fly-half Tinus de Beer is set to be a key man with Jarrod Evans and Rhys Priestland among the leavers.

Home ground: Arms Park

Last season: 10th

Coach: Matt Sherratt

Star turn:
Tomos Williams – The Wales scrum-half will be crucial in setting the high tempo Cardiff want to play at, while his sniping around the fringes is always a threat as he proved with his try in the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina.


Rising talent:
Theo Cabango – The brother of Wales football international Ben Cabango, fit-again winger Theo is seriously rapid with great feet and has already demonstrated his finishing prowess in pre-season.

Players In:
Tinus de Beer (Pumas)
Arwel Robson (Cornish Pirates)
Rhys Litterick (Harlequins)
Ciaran Parker (London Irish)
Matthew Aubrey (Ospreys)
Max Clark (Dragons – loan)

Players Out:
Liam Williams (Kubota Spears)
Jarrod Evans (Harlequins)
Lloyd Williams (Ealing Trailfindsers)
Dillon Lewis (Harlequins)
Max Llewellyn (Gloucester)
James Ratti (Ospreys)
Brad Thyer (Ealing Trailfinders)
Joe Peard (Ampthill)
Kristian Dacey (Brecon)
Kirby Myhill (released)
Dmitri Arhip (released)
Willis Halaholo (released)
Josh Navidi (retired)
Jason Harries (retired)

Connacht Rugby

Englishman Pete Wilkins, who has been part of the coaching set-up at the province for six years, is now in the hot seat with Andy Friend having returned to Australia. Sadly, box office signing Santiago Cordero will miss most of the season, with the Pumas winger sustaining a serious knee injury in training.

Home ground: Galway Sportsground

Last season: Semi-finalists (7th in table)


Coach: Pete Wilkins

Star turn:
Bundee Aki – One of the players of the World Cup, where he reached a new level for Ireland, with a series of stand-out displays in the centre. So powerful, yet is now running more astute lines than ever.

Rising talent:
Niall Murray – Quite literally a rising talent. The 24-year-old second row leapt high to pull off way more lineout steals than any other player in the BKT URC last season – 17 in total compared to the next best on nine.

Players In:
Santiago Cordero (Bordeaux Begles)
JJ Hanrahan (Dragons)
Joe Joyce (Bristol)
Sean Jansen (Leicester)
Seán O’Brien (Leinster)
Liam McNamara (Ireland Sevens)
Andrew Smith (Ireland Sevens)
Tadgh McElroy (Leinster)
Michael McDonald (Ulster – loan)

Players Out:
Kieran Marmion (Bristol)
Ciaran Booth (Released)
Adam Byrne (Released)
Leva Fifita (Released)
Conor Fitzgerald (Released)
Seán Masterson (Released)
Shane Delahunt (Retired)
Alex Wootton (Retired)

DHL Stormers

Title winners in their first season in the BKT URC, losing finalists in their second, the Cape Town collective are likely to be major forces in the competition once again, with Springbok full-back Warrick Gelant a man to watch following his return from Racing 92.

Home ground: DHL Stadium

Last season: Runners-up (3rd in table)

Coach: John Dobson

Star turn:
Manie Libbok – The leading points scorer in the BKT URC by a country mile last season, with 217 compared to his closest rival on 139. Now, the gifted fly-half is just two games away from World Cup glory.

Rising talent:
Hacjivah Dayimani – His surname means “diamond” in Xhosa and this No 8 is certainly a jewel in the Stormers’ crown, with pace that wouldn’t go amiss on the wing.

Players in:
Warrick Gelant (Racing 92)
Sti Sithole (Emirates Lions)
Lizo Gqoboka (Vodacom Bulls)
Ben Loader (London Irish)
Courtnall Skosan (Northampton)

Hendre Stassen (unattached)

Players out:
Steven Kitshoff (Ulster)
Marvin Orie (Perpignan)
Ernst van Rhyn (Sale)
Kade Wolhuter (Lions – loan)

Dragons RFC

Now back in private ownership following six years under the WRU and there’s a sense of a new beginning. Pre-season form has been promising with victories over both the Ospreys and the Scarlets, while Dan Lydiate’s return after a decade away will add clout in every sense.

Home ground: Rodney Parade

Last season: 15th

Coach: Dai Flanagan

Star turn:
Rio Dyer – Has consistently caught the eye during his outings on the wing for Wales this year, with his searing speed, his evasive footwork and his ceaseless kick chase.

Rising talent:
Will Reed – There’s a big opportunity for the 21-year-old fly-half with Sam Davies and JJ Hanrahan having both moved on. A gifted young man who reads the game well.

Players in:
Dane Blacker (Scarlets)
Dan Lydiate (Ospreys)
Corey Baldwin (Scarlets)
Cai Evans (Ospreys)
Rodrigo Martínez (Argentina Pampas)

Players out:
Will Rowlands (Racing 92)
Sam Davies (Grenoble)
Ross Moriarty (Brive)
JJ Hanrahan (Connacht)
Huw Taylor (RGC)
Ioan Davies (Newport)
Luke Yendle (Ampthill – loan)
Rob Evans (Miami Sharks)
Ben Fry (Dallas Jackals)
Lennon Greggains (released)
Ben Moa (released)

Edinburgh Rugby

Another team with a new head coach, former Hollywood Bets Sharks boss Sean Everitt having come on board following Mike Blair’s decision to stand down. The acquisition of international fly-half Ben Healy from Munster should be a pivotal signing.

Home ground: Hive Stadium

Last season: 12th

Coach: Sean Everitt

Star turn:
Darcy Graham – Few players beat more defenders in the BKT URC last season than the Scotland winger. It must be like trying to pin down an eel playing against him!

Rising talent:
Ewan Ashman – Born in Toronto and came through at Sale, but now very much part of Scotland’s set-up, with his mobility making this 23-year-old hooker a real asset.

Players in:
Ben Healy (Munster)
Ewan Ashman (Sale)
Javan Sebastian (Scarlets)
D’Arcy Rae (Montpellier)
Tom Dodd (Coventry)
Mitch Eadie (Toronto Arrows)
Robin Hislop (Saracens)
Cameron Neild (Glasgow)
Scott Steele (Harlequins)
Tim Swiel (Toyota Shokki)

Players out:
Jaco van der Walt (Vodacom Bulls)
Damien Hoyland (Old Glory DC)
Cammy Hutchison (Newcastle)
Henry Immelman (Vodacom Bulls)
Jack Blain (Warrringah Rats)
Harrison Courtney (Doncaster)
Jamie Jack (Bedford)
Bruce Houston (Heriot’s)
Nick Auterac (Retired)
Henry Pyrgos (Retired)
Nick Haining (Retired)
Lee-Roy Atalifo (Retired)
Pierce Phillips (Retired)


Emirates Lions

The Johannesburg-based unit played some really entertaining rugby last season and only narrowly missed out on the Play-offs. They have a spicy opening fixture, as they play hosts to the DHL Stormers this weekend.

Home ground: Emirates Airline Park

Last season: 9th

Coach: Ivan van Rooyen

Star turn:
Edwill van der Merwe – The former DHL Stormers winger beat no fewer than 37 defenders in the league last season, while he also produced a remarkable try-saving tackle against Stade Francais in Europe.

Rising talent:
Henco van Wyk – The Junior Springbok player of the year in 2021, this 22-year-old centre is just going from strength to strength. Scores tries and stops tries – not a bad combination!

Players in:
Erich Cronjé (Zebre)
Zander du Plessis (Griquas)
Richard Kriel (Zebre)
Conraad van Vuuren (Cheetahs)
Kade Wolhuter (Stormers – loan)
Johan Mulder

Players out:
Sti Sithole (Stormers)
Pieter Jansen van Vuren (Biarritz)
Michael van Vuuren (Newcastle)
André Warner (Agen)
Jaco Kriel (retired)
Jannie du Plessis (retired)

Glasgow Warriors

It was a pretty positive first campaign under Franco Smith, with the lineout drive becoming a mighty weapon, complimented by a cutting edge behind. Finished fourth before a home defeat to eventual champions Munster in the play-offs. Expect them to challenge hard again.

Home ground: Scotstoun Stadium

Last season: Quarter-finalists (4th in table)

Coach: Franco Smith

Star turn:
Sebastián Cancelliere – The Argentine winger was just too hot to handle last season, making the second-most clean breaks in the league, leaving a trail of defenders clutching thin air.

Rising talent:
Rory Darge – Given he is now a first-choice starter for Scotland, it’s easy to forget he is still only 23. There is so much to come from the Edinburgh-born flanker.

Players in:
Henco Venter (Hollywoodbets Sharks)
Kyle Rowe (London Irish)
Facundo Cordero (Exeter Chiefs)
Logan Trotter (London Irish)
Gregor Hiddleston (Stirling Wolves)
Richie Simpson (Ayrshire Bulls)
Greg Peterson (Newcastle)

Players Out:
Sam Johnson (Brive)
Lewis Bean (Montauban)
Cole Forbes (Bay of Plenty)
Cameron Neild (Edinburgh)
Domingo Miotti (Oyonnax)
Ryan Wilson (released)
Simon Berghan (retired)

Hollywoodbets Sharks

A new title sponsor and a new head coach in the vastly experienced Kiwi John Plumtree who is back with the team he starred for as a player and coached more than a decade ago.

Home ground: Hollywoodbets Kings Park

Last season: Quarter-finalists (8th in table)

Coach: John Plumtree

Star turn:
Eben Etzebeth – One of the true greats of the modern game, as he demonstrated yet again during the Springboks’ World Cup quarter-final victory over France. Will bring a real physical edge to the Durban outfit who he joined from Toulon last year.

Rising talent:
Aphelele Fassi – A quick and agile winger with a silky skill-set. Re-signed for the Hollywood Sharks earlier this year to end the speculation he was moving to the DHL Stormers.

Players in:
Vincent Koch (Stade Français)
Coenie Oosthuizen (Sale Sharks)
Francois Hougaard (Saracens)
Siya Masuku (Cheetahs)
Diego Appollis (Pumas)
George Cronjé (Cheetahs)
Ig Prinsloo (Pumas)

Players out:
Siya Kolisi (Racing 92)
Thomas du Toit (Bath)
Thaakir Abrahams (Lyon)
Carlü Sadie (Bordeaux)
Henco Venter (Glasgow)
Khutha Mchunu (Bulls)
Ben Tapuai (Bordeaux)
Thembelani Bholi (Valence)
Mpilo Gumede (Bulls)
Fred Zeilinga (Bourg-en-Bresse)
Ockie Barnard (Saitama Wild Knights)

Leinster Rugby

Having gone without any silverware for the past couple of seasons, they will be on a mission as they face up to life after Johnny Sexton. Springbok coach Jacques Nienaber joins after the World Cup, which is some addition to the staff. With their outstanding strength in depth, you know they will be right up there.

Home ground: RDS Arena

Last season: Semi-finalists (1st in table)

Coach: Leo Cullen

Star turn:
Josh van der Flier – So many to choose from, but it’s hard to look beyond the current World player of the year. A non-stop ball of energy on the flank who is into everything, every time.

Rising talent:
Joe McCarthy – The 22-year-old second row will have gained so much from his World Cup experience. Born in Manhattan, but schooled and developed in Dublin.

Players In:
Sam Prendergast (Academy)
Rob Russell (Academy)
John McKee (Academy)
Alex Soroka (Academy)
Lee Barron (Academy)

Players Out:
Vakhtang Abdaladze (Brive)
Dave Kearney (Chicago Hounds)
Nick McCarthy (Chicago Hounds)
Tadgh McElroy (Connacht)
Andrew Smith (Connacht)
Seán O’Brien (Connacht)
Max O’Reilly (Released)
Marcus Hanan (Released)
Johnny Sexton (Retired)
Charlie Ryan (Retired)
James Tracy (Retired)


They have left themselves some act to follow after last season’s heroics, with a succession of huge results on the road culminating in victory over the DHL Stormers in the Cape Town Grand Final. Will strain every sinew to defend their title.

Home ground: Thomond Park

Last season: Champions (5th in table)

Coach: Graham Rowntree

Star turn:
Tadhg Beirne – One of the outstanding forwards in world rugby whether at lock or on the blindside flank. So good over the ball and so athletic both in the lineout and the loose.

Rising talent:
Gavin Coombes – Made more carries (246) than anyone else in the BKT URC last season, while also scoring 10 tries with this bullocking power at No 8.

Players In:
Seán O’Brien (Exeter)
Alex Nankivell (Crusaders)
John Ryan (Chiefs)
Cian Hurley (Academy)
Patrick Campbell (Academy)

Players out:
Malakai Fekitoa (Benetton)
Ben Healy (Edinburgh)
Eoin O’Connor (Exeter)
Chris Farrell (Oyonnax)
James French (Ulster)
Dan Goggin (Montauban)
Liam O’Connor (retired)
Paddy Kelly (retired)


For the first time in close on 20 years, there is no Alun Wyn Jones on the squad list, while further hugely experienced figures have departed in Rhys Webb, Gareth Anscombe, Dan Lydiate, Tomas Francis and Bradley Davies. But you still have current Wales stars like Jac Morgan, George North, Adam Beard, Dewi Lake and Gareth Thomas on hand.

Home ground: Stadium

Last season: 13th

Coach: Toby Booth

Star turn:
Justin Tipuric – Having retired from international rugby, the 93-cap flanker will be a priceless season-long asset for the team he has served so well over the past 14 years.

Rising talent:
Morgan Morris – The versatile back row has been such a consistent performer over the past couple of seasons, with his dynamic carrying and breakdown brilliance.

Players in:
James Ratti (Cardiff)
Ethan Lewis (Saracens)
Toby Fricker (Bristol)
Luke Davies (Jersey)
Dom Morris Saracens (loan)

Players out:
Alun Wyn Jones (Toulon)
Rhys Webb (Biarritz)
Gareth Anscombe (Tokyo Sungoliath)
Joe Hawkins (Exeter)
Cai Evans (Dragons)
Tiaan Thomas-Wheeler (Toyota Industries Shuttles)
Ethan Roots (Exeter)
Dan Lydiate (Dragons)
Tomas Francis (Provence)
Michael Collins (Toshiba Brave Lupus)
Sam Cross (Newcastle)
Tom Cowan-Dickie (Plymouth Albion)
Matthew Aubrey (Cardiff Rugby)
Osian Knott (Swansea)
Stephen Myler (retired)
Scott Baldwin (retired)
Bradley Davies (retired)
Dan Evans (retired)
Elvis Taione (retired)


Former Springbok Albert van den Berg and ex-Ireland star Jared Payne have joined the coaching team, while Taine Plumtree and Ioan Lloyd look key signings. After just one victory in their first nine games last season, they then won 11 of their next 13 in all competitions, so will want to carry on that latter form. Back rower Josh Macleod takes over the captaincy.

Home ground: Parc y Scarlets

Last season: Fourteenth

Coach: Dwayne Peel

Star turn:
Vaea Fifita – The ex-All Black and now Tongan international is such a threat with ball in hand. Has been used a fair bit at lock, but likely to be utilised in the back row to allow him to wreak the greatest havoc.

Rising talent:
Ryan Conbeer – The 24-year-old winger could beat you in a phonebox. Blessed with a lethal step, he made the second most clean breaks in the BKT URC last season.

Players in:
Ioan Lloyd (Bristol)
Taine Plumtree (Blues, Wellington Lions)
Alex Craig (Gloucester)
Tomi Lewis (Jersey Reds)
Efan Jones (RGC)
Teddy Leatherbarrow
(Loughborough University)
Ed Scragg (London Irish)
Charlie Titcombe
(Loughborough University)
Archie Hughes (Academy)

Players out:
Rhys Patchell (Highlanders)
Sione Kalamafoni (Vannes)
WillGriff John (Racing 92)
Dane Blacker (Dragons)
Javan Sebastian (Edinburgh)
Tomas Lezana (Montauban)
Corey Baldwin (Dragons )
Phil Price (Bridgend)
Harry Williams (Ampthill)
Josh Helps (Carmarthen Quins)
Iestyn Rees (Ampthill)
Taylor Davies (Llandovery)
Griff Evans (Ampthill)
Leigh Halfpenny (released)
Tom Price (released)
Blade Thomson (retired)
Aaron Shingler (retired)
Alex Jeffries (retired)
Lewis Rawlins
Daf Hughes

Ulster Rugby

After finishing second in the regular season, a quarter-final defeat at home to Connacht would have really stung and they will want to make amends. The star signing of Springbok prop Steven Kitshoff is the big news on the recruitment front.

Home ground: Kingspan Stadium

Last season: Quarter-finalists (2nd in table)

Coach: Dan McFarland

Star turn:
John Cooney – Retaining the scrum-half on a new deal has been a major boost as only the DHL Stormers’ Manie Libbok scored more points than him in the cross-country BKT URC last season.

Rising talent:
Tom Stewart – The 22-year-old hooker set a new try-scoring record for the league last term, with his 16 touchdowns surpassing the previous best of 14 by wingers Tim Visser (Edinburgh, 2010-11) and Rabz Maxwane (Cheetahs 2019-20).

Players in:
Steven Kitshoff (DHL Stormers)
Dave Ewers (Exeter)
James French (Munster)
Ben Griffin (Clontarf)

Players out:
Sam Carter (Leicester)
Frank Bradshaw Ryan (Montauban)
Gareth Milasinovich (Valence)
Jeffery Toomaga-Allen
(Queensland Reds)
Craig Gilroy (released)
Rob Lyttle (released)
Duane Vermeulen (released)
Rory Sutherland (released)
Ian Madigan (retired)
Jordi Murphy (retired)

Vodacom Bulls

The Pretoria-based Bulls have been very busy, with Willie Le Roux, Akker van der Merwe and Wilco Louw notable signings, while former Springbok assistant Gary Gold is among the additions on the coaching front. It looks like the mean business.

Home ground: Loftus Versfeld

Last season: Quarter-finalists (6th in table)

Coach: Jake White

Star turn:
Kurt–Lee Arendse – Quick, elusive and knows his way to the try-line. With fellow Springbok wing Canan Moodie also on their books, the Bulls have some serious fire power out wide.

Rising talent:
Elrigh Louw – The 24-year-old back row made the second most carries in the league last season. A real physical presence at 6ft 5ins and 17st 6lbs.

Players in:
Willie Le Roux (Toyota Verblitz)
Jaco van der Walt (Edinburgh)
Devon Williams (Pumas)
Henry Immelman (Edinburgh)
Sebastian de Klerk (Pumas)
Sergeal Petersen (Shimizu Koto Blue Sharks)

Akker van der Merwe (Sale)

Jannes Kirsten (Exeter)

Devon Williams (Pumas)

Khutha Mchunu (Sharks)

Deon Slabbert (Pumas)

Mpilo Gumede (Sharks)

Players out:
Lizo Gqoboka (Stormers)
Sbu Nkosi (released)
Morné Steyn (retired)
Bismarck du Plessis (retired)

Zebre Parma

The only way is up for the Italians, given they finished bottom of the table last season without a single league win to their name. They have really shaken up their squad with a major turnover in personnel in a bid to change their fortunes.

Home ground: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi

Last season: 16th

Coach: Fabio Roselli

Star turn:
Jake Polledri – If he can put his wretched luck with injuries behind him and stay fit, the dynamic Azzurri back row could make a real impact following his arrival from Gloucester.

Rising talent:
Simone Gesi – The 22-year-old winger is an absolute flyer. So fast and so elusive. Made his Test debut for Italy earlier this year and has a bright future.

Players in:
Danilo Fischetti (London Irish)
Jake Polledri (Gloucester)
Filippo Bozzoni (Calvisano)
Ben Cambriani (Ampthill)
Scott Gregory (Highlanders)
Luca Morisi (London Irish)
Fetuli Paea (Highlanders)
Matteo Canali (Petrarca)
Dylan De Leeuw (Western Province)
Tommaso Di Bartolomeo (Petrarca)
Giovanni Montemauri (Rovigo)
Nicola Piantella (Mogliano)
Bautista Stavile (Rugby)
Liam Zocchi-Dommann (Sharks)

Players out:
Joshua Furno (Dax)
Matt Kvesic (Coventry)
Erich Cronjé (Lions)
Dennis Visser (Narbonne)
Richard Kriel (Lions)
Joey Caputo (Petrarca)
Chris Cook (released)
Jacques du Toit (released)
MJ Pelser (released)
Jan Uys (released)
Kobus van Wyk (released)
Gabriele Venditti (released)
Johan Meyer (retired)

The 2023/24 BKT United Rugby Championship kicks off with Zebre Parma vs Ulster Rugby at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi on Saturday, 21 October at 14:00.


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1 Comment
Tris 276 days ago

The list of players out of Wales is huge. Cant see them troubling the top half of the table.

Maybe the Scots can trouble the top spots but it looks like it will be a Irish SA showdown again.

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