Just as it was in its previous guises, the United Rugby Championship was dominated by the Irish provinces this season.

And yet when it came down to the decider, they were nowhere to be seen, as the Stormers and Bulls went at it in Cape Town in the inaugural URC grand final.

For the vast majority of the season it seemed inevitable there would be Irish involvement in the final, and quite possible it would be an all-Irish decider, but when league rugby turned into cup rugby, the South Africans knew how to get the job done.

For 40 players across the provinces, the season is continuing as they prepare for a grueling tour of New Zealand, but for most it's now a welcome rest period after another season which was at times chaotic due to Covid-19's influence.

This season has also been ruthless on the players. With fewer games in the URC format, teams are adjusting their squad sizes accordingly, with more departures than arrivals across the professional leagues. A handful of the departures are well-deserved retirements, some were injury enforced, but for many the second half of this season has been a fight to get a contract elsewhere.

As well as playing personnel, the summer will see three of the four provinces integrate new coaches into their teams.

The greatest upheaval will be at Munster where head coach Johann van Graan departs for Bath along with his defence coach JP Ferreira, while Stephen Larkham is also leaving after three years in Limerick, returning to Australia to become head coach of the Brumbies. Graham Rowntree will step into the head coaching role, while the province's major recruitment drive has been around his backroom team, with Mike Prendergast and Denis Leamy (below) returning to their home-province, while Andi Kyriacou steps up from the academy.

At Leinster, Denis Leamy's move to Munster has opened the door for the recently-retired Sean O'Brien to become contact skills coach, while another former Leinster player Andrew Goodman will join Leo Cullen's backroom team, as Felipe Contepomi returns to Argentina.

Ulster legend Jared Payne will also leave his province after 11 years as a player and coach to join Jono Gibbes at Clermont Auvergne, as the province's former Heineken Cup-winning centre Johnny Bell takes his place coaching the defence.

Here's the tale of the tape for the four Irish provinces in 2021/22.


LEINSTER RUGBY

URC: Semi-final (1st in regular season)

Champions Cup: Final (beaten 24-21 by La Rochelle)

Players used: 60

Most appearances: Michael Ala'alatoa (25 out of 28)

Top tryscorer: James Lowe (13)

Departing players: Devin Toner, Sean Cronin, Dan Leavy (all retiring), Peter Dooley, Adam Byrne, David Hawkshaw, Josh Murphy (all Connacht), Jack Dunne, Rory O'Loughlin (both Exeter Chiefs)

Incoming players: Jason Jenkins (Munster), Charlie Ngatai (Lyon)

Player of the season: Ross Molony

Most underrated: Rhys Ruddock

We'll have to correct ourselves for describing Leinster's season as 'trophyless' last week. The record books will say that Leinster lifted the 'Irish Shield' at the end of the URC regular season, and although the unofficial Interprovincial title is technically a trophy, it's hard to see it cheering up anybody in Leinster Rugby HQ after a season that promised everything but ultimately delivered nothing.

For the first since 2017 Leo Cullen's side end the campaign without a (major) title, having been outmanoeuvred in the two games that really counted.

At times this season it looked like Leinster had brought their game to a newer level, and for large chunks of it they seemed unstoppable in attack, particularly in their Champions Cup knockout games against Connacht, Leicester Tigers and Toulouse.

But they seemed to go into their shells in both the Champions Cup final against La Rochelle, and the URC semi-final at home to the Bulls, with common threads in each of those costly defeats.

They may have drawn from 60 players over the course of the season, but when push came to shove, they didn't really seem to trust more than 20, with multiple replacements seeing little or no game time in each of those losses.

To counter that, they have spent their money on two NIQ signings for next season; veteran centre Charlie Ngatai from Lyon and Munster's South African lock Jason Jenkins, and although Jenkins didn't light up the world in his one season in Limerick, his progress was constantly derailed by niggling injuries. He could look a very different player if he avoids those issues next season.

The last time Leinster won were held trophyless, they followed it up with a double in 2018. No pressure.


ULSTER RUGBY

URC: Semi-final (3rd in regular season)

Champions Cup: Last 16 (beaten 50-49 on aggregate by Toulouse)

Players used: 46

Most appearances: Alan O'Connor, Billy Burns, Nick Timoney (24 out of 26)

Top tryscorer: Robert Baloucoune (11)

Departing players: Bradley Roberts (Dragons), David O'Connor, Ross Kane (both Ealing Trailfinders), Mick Kearney (retiring), Jack McGrath, Sean Reidy

Incoming players: Jeff Toomaga-Allen (Wasps), Frank Bradshaw Ryan (USON Nevers), Jake Flannery, Declan Moore (both Munster), Sean Reffell (Saracens)

Player of the season: Nick Timoney (below)

Most underrated: Andrew Warwick

For Ulster, the 2021/22 season sums up the fine margins of sport better than most.

Last Saturday, they were seconds away from an upset win against the Stormers, and what would have been a home final - and one without Leinster - before their resistance creaked in Cape Town.

In April's Champions Cup last 16 they looked the better side against Toulouse for all of 150 minutes, before Antoine Dupont's late try saw the defending champions prevail 50-49 on aggregate. More Ulster heartbreak.

They weren't just struck down by the cruel fate of luck though, 80 minute performances - or the lack of them - have been the story of the season.

So often, Dan McFarland's side struggled their way through the last quarter of games. Often times, they had done enough in the first hour to carry them home, like in the Champions Cup games against Northampton and Clermont, or the final round of the URC against the Sharks in Belfast.

Against Munster at Thomond Park they led 13-6 with a player advantage in the final 20 minutes and conspired to lose. In their Champions Cup last 16, they let in a soft Toulouse try in the dying embers of their first leg win in France, and ultimately that proved the difference across the two legs. They looked in control at 15-10 against the Stormers last weekend, before failing to take their chances to see the game out.

This had all the potential to be a trophy-winning season at Ulster, and while ultimately it was a case of same old story, they have the foundations to build for next season.

In the pack they have one of the best mauls in the league, while Nick Timoney has become a real leader, and the addition of Jeff Toomaga Allen sees their front row stocks greatly boosted.

But it was in the backline that they surprised people this year, with James Hume, Robert Baloucone and Mike Lowry bringing their game on to international standard, and Nathan Doak and Ethan McIlroy proving to be two incredibly exciting prospects out of the academy. Meanwhile Jacob Stockdale could be like a new signing, having missed all but one game this year due to injury.

Ulster will challenge again next season, but sooner or later they have to deliver.


MUNSTER RUGBY

URC: Quarter-final (6th in regular season)

Champions Cup: Quarter-final (beaten by Toulouse on placekicks after 24-24 draw)

Players used: 59

Most appearances: Jack O'Donoghue and Fineen Wycherley (23 out of 26)

Top tryscorer: Jack O'Donoghue and Simon Zebo (9 each)

Departing players: Rowan Osborne, Jonathan Wren (both retiring), Chris Cloete, Matt Gallagher (both Bath), Sean French, Alex McHenry (both to unconfirmed English teams), Jake Flannery, Declan Moore (both Ulster), Kevin O'Byrne (Ealing Trailfinders), Jason Jenkins (Leinster), John Ryan (Wasps) Damian de Allende

Incoming players: Malakai Fekitoa (Wasps), Antoine Frisch (Bristol Bears), Chris Moore (Exeter University)

Player of the season: Jack O'Donoghue

Most underrated: Jean Kleyn

It's rarely a dull week covering Munster, but this season seemed to have more plot twists than a Dan Brown novel. At times, the plotlines felt equally implausible.

The chaos wasn't even solely the fault of the province as they found themselves stranded in South Africa in November following the outbreak of the Omicron variant of Covid. Then there was RG Snyman's heartbreaking repeat of his ACL injury in October, after the World Cup winner's promising appearances earlier in the season.

The good days were genuinely special; their 35-14 win against Wasps in December was achieved with a squad largely populated by academy kids, and 12 of them making debuts, after 34 senior players and the coaching staff were confined to isolation after their return from South Africa.

The bad days were painful on a similar scale; The Champions Cup shootout defeat to Toulouse came after one of the all-time great knockout matches, while their final two URC games against Leinster and Ulster bordered on humiliating.

And after all that, they have to start again from scratch with a new coaching team, but one that wont be allowed a slow transition.

After four years of frustration under Johann van Graan, and the false dawn of Stephen Larkham's attack, Rowntree, Prendergast, Leamy and Kyriacou have to hit the ground running.

What they will have is a genuinely world class back row, and a job on their hands picking just three to start out of Peter O'Mahony, Gavin Coombes, Jack O'Donoghue, John Hodnett and Alex Kendellen.

Their issues this season came up front though, Toulouse squeezing the life out of their front row in consecutive seasons. With John Ryan departing for Wasps, they now seem lighter in that department.

There will be many Munster fans just glad to see the back of this season though. From the moment it was confirmed that Van Graan would be leaving, the atmosphere around the province turned sour, and although they produced some big performances in the second half of the season, it was one they never really looked like contending in.


CONNACHT RUGBY

URC: 11th (missed out on playoffs)

Champions Cup: Last 16 (beaten 82-41 by Leinster on aggregate)

Players used: 46

Most appearances: Sammy Arnold, Jarrad Butler, Kieran Marmion (22 out of 24)

Top tryscorer: Mack Hansen and John Porch (6 each)

Departing players: Sammy Arnold, Abraham Papali'i (both Brive), Ultan Dillane (La Rochelle), Tietie Tuimauga (Colomiers), Eoghan Masterson (Aurillac), Matt Healy (retiring), Peter Robb, Greg McGrath, Jonny Murphy, Ben O'Donnell, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Peter Sullivan

Incoming players: Peter Dooley, Adam Byrne, David Hawkshaw, Josh Murphy (all Leinster), Shamus Hurley-Langton (Manawatu Turbos), Byron Ralston (Western Force)

Player of the season: Cian Prendergast

Most underrated: Shane Delahunt

Seven or eight years ago, this probably would have represented an on-par season for Connacht, but that's no longer the case.

While they had some great one-off wins, produced yet another shrewd signing in Mack Hansen, and even qualified for the Champions Cup knockouts for the first time, they never got into a rhythm.

They finished 11th in the URC, but realistically their season was in auto-pilot mode from early April when they were knocked out of the Champions Cup by Leinster, by which point their domestic play-off hopes were all but gone.

At times they were thrilling to watch, and arguably the best value for money ticket in the country, with Andy Friend's 'Fast, Relentless, Adaptable' approach almost guaranteeing a decent game for the neutral. But while they played attractive rugby in attack, they were too often cut apart in defence.

All of this comes with the caveat that in the URC the deck is stacked against Connacht. With Interpro games protected in the competition format, it means playing Leinster, Ulster and Munster twice each. By contrast, Edinburgh and Glasgow get tp pick up an extra two matches against Italian opposition.

With only the Lions in the 'South African Shield' rivaling Connacht for strength-of-schedule, it's fair to concede that the Irish side will face a tough challenge breaking back into the play-offs next year.

They're also losing some key players such as Ultan Dillane and Sammy Arnold, but they've recruited smartly, with Peter Dooley, Adam Byrne and Josh Murphy all bringing a lot of experience from Leinster, as well as hopefully a winning culture, while David Hawkshaw also comes from Dublin to provide depth at out-half and midfield.

There's also the two signings from abroad, the Irish qualified Byron Ralston, and the somehow not-Irish qualified Shamus Hurley-Langton. What are the chances of landing another Mack Hansen?

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