After a season of surprises in the debut campaign of the BKT United Rugby Championship, the familiarity of teams in the 2022/23 season adds a new layer of excitement.
Twelve months ago, we didn't know what we were going to get from the South African sides, our research limited to the Currie Cup and some facile games against the British and Irish Lions.
Aside from their Springbok stars, the casual fan knew very little about the wider squads of the Bulls, Stormers, Lions and Sharks. We didn't know how they would look when they came up north and we didn't know how everyone else would fare when they went down south.
But after a slow start, the 2021/22 season showed that the South Africans are the real deal, the Bulls and Stormers breaking up the Irish dominance, and the Western Province side eventually becoming the first URC champions.
The new season has been front-loaded with derbies, with almost every round between now and the new year containing at least one Interpro clash.
From an Irish point of view, that's providing a tough start, in particular for Connacht who begin with an away trip to Ulster, before travelling to face the Bulls and Stormers, and returning to two more derbies against Munster and Leinster.
But if the Irish sides can reach the new year in respectable fettle, an easier run of games could provide them an opportunity to gain some real momentum down the stretch, just as the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks did themselves last year.
The meeting of Ulster and Connacht is the big game of the weekend, while Leinster and Munster are both on the road. Munster have the first of two trips to Wales in consecutive weeks when they face Cardiff at the Arms Park on Saturday, while Leinster begin the day in Italy taking on Zebre Parma.
Zebre Parma v Leinster (Saturday, 1pm) and Cardiff v Munster (Saturday, 3.05pm) are both live on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player, while Ulster v Connacht (Saturday, 7.35pm) is live on TG4.
Saturday Sport on RTÉ Radio 1 will have live updates from Cardiff v Munster, as well as post-match reaction from Zebre v Leinster, and a preview of Ulster v Connacht.
RTE.ie/sport will have live scoring and blogs across the weekend with match reports and reaction from the grounds. All games are live on URC TV.
It looks like being a perfect night for rugby in Belfast on Saturday night for the big Interpro of the weekend, with a dry forecast and temperatures in the low teens. Leinster are in line for a rainy afternoon in Parma for their clash with Zebre, while Cardiff v Munster is expected to get sunshine and temperatures of around 17C.
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For the first time since 2017, Leinster enter the new season empty handed.
The eight-time champions looked like champions elect for much of last season, before capitulating in the semi-final against the Bulls at the RDS.
Without being disrespectful to the opposition, Leo Cullen's side have been given a kind start to the new season, with an away trip to Parma followed by a home outing against Benetton next week.
As usual, Zebre will be expected to struggle this season, and lost one of their best players Danilo Fischetti during the summer, with the Italy international moving to London Irish.
Leinster have won all 16 meetings between the sides, including an infamous 3-0 victory in Parma in 2018.
And although Zebre did win their final home game of the URC last season, it was the only victory the picked up across the entire campaign.
Zebre Parma: Richard Kriel; Pierre Bruno, Erich Cronje, Enrico Lucchin, Simone Gesi; Tiff Eden, Chris Cook; Paolo Buonfiglio, Jacques du Toit, Matteo Nocera; David Sisi (capt), Leonard Krumov; Luca Andreani, MJ Pelser, Taina Fox-Matamua.
Replacements: Luca Bigi, Juan Pitinari, Muhamed Hasa, Joshua Furno, Guido Volpi, Alessandro Fusco, Franco Smith Jr, Jacopo Trulla.
Leinster: Max O'Reilly; Rob Russell, Jamie Osborne, Charlie Ngatai, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Ed Byrne, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa; Ross Molony, Jason Jenkins; Rhys Ruddock (capt), Scott Penny, Max Deegan.
Replacements: John McKee, Michael Milne, Vakhtang Abdaladze, Brian Deeny, Alex Soroka, Nick McCarthy, Ciarán Frawley, Will Connors.
Referee: Ben Blain (SRU)
The first game of the Rowntree era at Munster brings the former champions to Cardiff, who have had a busy recruitment drive this summer.
Dai Young's side have opened their wallets to bring in Liam Williams and Taulupe Faletau among several others, as they look to get back into contention for a place in both the playoffs and Champions Cup.
Cardiff finished 14th last season, and although they were arguably effected by Covid-19 more than any other team, there is no excuse for their end of season form, particularly the final of the campaign where they shipped 69 points to Benetton in Treviso.
Likewise, Munster's season fizzled out, and while there is renewed energy under a new coaching ticket, both Rowntree and his assistants have warned it may take some time for their ideas to bed in.
Their recent record against Welsh sides is good though, winning 15 of their last 16 URC games against the regions, including six in a row against this weekend's opponents.
They've also won on each of their last two visits to the Arms Park.
Cardiff: Liam Williams; Owen Lane, Rey Lee-Lo, Max Llewellyn, Josh Adams; Jarrod Evans, Tomos Williams; Rhys Carré, Kristian Dacey, Dillon Lewis; Josh Turnbull (capt), Seb Davies; James Botham, Thomas Young, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Liam Belcher, Rhys Barratt, Dmitri Arhip, Matthew Screech, Lopeti Timani, Lloyd Williams, Rhys Priestland, Uilisi Halaholo.
Munster: Shane Daly; Calvin Nash, Chris Farrell, Malakai Fekitoa, Liam Coombes; Ben Healy, Paddy Patterson; Josh Wycherley, Niall Scannell, Keynan Knox; Jean Kleyn, Fineen Wycherley; Jack O'Donoghue (capt), Alex Kendellen, Jack O’Sullivan.
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Dave Kilcoyne, Roman Salanoa, Tom Ahern, John Hodnett, Neil Cronin, Jack Crowley, Rory Scannell.
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)
With such a tough run of games to start the season, Connacht's best hopes of a win in their opening three away games could be on this opening night, when teams can sometimes come in a bit cold.
Ulster started last season hot though, winning four out of their first four games, that run ended by Connacht at the Aviva Stadium.
And while Andy Friend's side prevailed that day, it was Ulster who looked by far the better team in the reverse fixture in February, winning 32-12 at Kingspan Stadium.
Ulster have turned Ravenhill into a fortress, losing just once on their own patch in 2021/22, but this fixture has been quite evenly matched in recent years, the sides sharing their last eight meetings four apiece, and Connacht picking up wins here in both 2018 and 2021.
Both sides will be without their captains for the opening night, Iain Henderson and Jack Carty still getting back to fitness after surgery in the off-season, and history would show that when Carty doesn't play, Connacht tend to struggle.
As influential as Henderson is for his own province, theirs is a deeper pool.
Ulster: Stewart Moore; Rob Baloucoune, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Eric O'Sullivan, Tom Stewart, Marty Moore; Alan O'Connor (capt), Sam Carter; Matty Rea, Marcus Rea, David McCann.
Replacements: John Andrew, Callum Reid, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Cormac Izuchukwu, Jordi Murphy, David Shanahan, Angus Curtis, and Aaron Sexton.
Connacht: Tiernan O'Halloran; Byron Ralston, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, John Porch; Conor Fitzgerald, Kieran Marmion; Peter Dooley, Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier; Gavin Thornbury (capt), Leva Fifita; Josh Murphy, Conor Oliver, Paul Boyle
Replacements: Dylan Tiernay-Martin, Denis Buckley, Sam Illo, Niall Murray, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Caolin Blade, David Hawkshaw, Oran McNulty.
Referee: Eoghan Cross (IRFU)
Follow the 2022/23 BKT United Rugby Championship across RTÉ radio, TV, RTÉ.ie/sport and the RTÉ News app.
Watch live coverage of Zebre Parma v Leinster and Cardiff v Munster (17 September) on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.