The Glasgow Warriors, the first of the Scottish sides in action, face an intimidating first game against Ulster in Belfast. Danny Wilson’s side lost 40-15 to Kingspan last year, but hopes are high that the Warriors can put in a better punch tonight.
Edinburgh, under new coach Mike Blair, will play on Saturday, hosting the Scarlets at their newly christened DAM Health stadium which is expected to be close to capacity at 7,774 by 3pm. Selling the naming rights to a company that provides Covid-19 testing seems particularly fashionable. The deal, worth more than £ 1million over five years, is a more than welcome source of income after a season in which the turnstiles did not click.
The courageous new world of the RCU is also expected to generate much-needed cash, with the four big South African franchises joining the dozen Celtic-Italian Pro14 clubs from last season.
Sixteen teams spanning five countries and two hemispheres may seem like a potpourri, but the melting pot nature of the new competition means a plethora of different TV offerings.
One of the most surprising aspects of URC is its partnership with Roc Nation, the entertainment agency founded by Jay-Z and Beyoncé. It all seems far from the early days of professionalism when Scottish clubs traveled by bus to Bridgend and Llanelli to play in the Welsh-Scottish League. The RCU is a direct descendant of this competition and the hope is that the rapprochement with the golden rap couple will help the league reach a younger audience.
Youthful vigor was key to Glasgow’s rebirth in the second half of last season when a handful of gifted youngsters seized their chance. In the absence of their international contingent, Wilson was forced to play and it paid off.
In a miserable first half of the campaign, the Warriors lost nine of Pro14’s 12 games and suffered dismemberment in Europe at the hands of Exeter chiefs. But they finished strong, winning three of their last four games to claim last place in this season’s Heineken Champions Cup.
Duncan Weir has been cast for a key role as the Glasgow Warriors face Ulster in United Rugby …
While last season was mixed for Wilson, it should not be forgotten that he took office under the most trying of circumstances. Covid’s restrictions and injuries denied him his main assets in a turbulent first campaign in charge.
He has now had time to put his own mark on the team and seems to have recruited well. The loss of Adam Hastings and Huw Jones, to Gloucester and Harlequins respectively, will be felt, but Glasgow has sought to replace its creativity while adding a harder advantage.
Only problem, some of the new recruits have not yet arrived. Argentina pair Domingo Miotti and Seb Cancelliere are in international service with the Pumas in Australia, while Kiwi full-back Josh McKay is still in New Zealand.
Still, there are enough new faces to generate optimism among the warrior nation, with Scotland qualified center Sione Tuipuloto and Australia international full-back Jack Dempsey among the rookie picks.
Some of the new boys have a familiar look to them and the return of Duncan Weir to mentor / challenge young opening half Ross Thompson offers a compelling subplot.
Oddly enough, Wilson picked Weir as his starting 10 against Ulster after the 30-year-old impressed in friendlies against Newcastle and Worcester.
“I felt right in those two preseason games, Duncan got ahead of him,” said the coach. “Not that Ross is doing anything wrong.”
Wilson has also been a grateful recipient of players apparently unwanted by Edinburgh. Flanker Rory Darge joined at the end of last season and made such an impression that you wondered why he was allowed to leave Murrayfield. Glasgow hopes to work the same magic with Ally Miller and Murray McCallum.
And what about Edinburgh? Blair’s arrival followed the sudden departure of Richard Cockerill after four crazy years at the helm.
Things have never been dull under the pugnacious former England hooker who has done a great job of strengthening the capital club and making them real contenders, certainly in his first three years.
Not winning the play-offs was his Achilles heel and players had also started to tire of his more autocratic tendencies and limited game plan.
Blair is from Gregor Townsend’s Scottish side and is expected to borrow a lot from the national coach’s playbook. An adventurous scrum-half who has already been shortlisted for World Player of the Year, Blair will be looking to step up Edinburgh’s game on their new plastic pitch.
He’s arrived too late to recruit his own players and will have to make do with what he inherited. He is also set to continue without two of the Edinburgh Lions after Duhan van der Merwe and Rory Sutherland were drawn south by Worcester.
He still has Hamish Watson and also quicksilver Darcy Graham as well as a handful of new signings from the late Cockerill, including dynamic scrum-half Ben Vellacott and Scottish center James Lang who arrived from the Wasps and Harlequins respectively. .
Blair is one of Edinburgh’s favorite sons and the supporters will be supporting one of their own. Season tickets have sold out in record numbers and there is a sense of relief that the club finally have a stadium that it can truly call home.
Nevertheless, expectations will have to be tempered by the presence in the RCU of the Bulls, Sharks, Lions and Stormers. South Africa’s Big Four are mixed, but the Bulls in particular will be formidable opponents. Leinster, Munster and Ulster will be stronger than ever and Scottish clubs will have to fight to finish in the top eight and advance to the play-offs.
They will also be in direct competition with each other to secure a place in next season’s Champions Cup, investing the festive long distance derbies with even more advantage.
It promises to be an exciting campaign.