South Africa’s second assault on European club rugby kicks off this weekend, with all five top franchises involved in the Champions and Challenge cups.
A promising first entry into Europe came with its growing pains, but it was on the whole a success for South African teams, with the DHL Stormers, Sharks, Vodacom Bulls, Lions and Cheetahs making it through the pool stage and into the knockouts.
However, a new season brings with it renewed hopes. With the experience of a debut campaign under the belts and bolstered squads, South Africa’s second foray into Europe promises to be a thriller.
It’s a fresh start for Jake White’s charges, who kick things off in Pretoria against Saracens, the Premiership champions. It doesn’t get any easier for The Herd, as their subsequent fixtures will take them to Lyon and Bristol, in France and England, respectively. Returning to Loftus, the Bulls host Bordeaux-Bègles, hoping to have already laid the groundwork for progression to the next round.
A change in format – from two pools of 12 to four pools of six – means that coach John Dobson’s Stormers has been drawn in the Pool of Death for the Champions Cup sequel, alongside Leinster, Sale, Leicester and French giants La Rochelle and Stade Francais.
The Stormers will avoid playing Leinster as they both come from the same regional competition (the Vodacom URC), and will be able to count on home comforts against La Rochelle and Sale.
The undeniable highlight of the pool stage is that clash against La Rochelle in mid-December, which will likely also feature a homecoming for former Stormers wings Dillyn Leyds and Raymond Rhule. However, the true test of how much the Stormers have really improved their squad will come in the trips to Leicester and Paris, where a resurgent Stade Francais side will be lying in wait.
In the Challenge Cup, the Lions hit the road for their opening duel against Perpignan in France before taking on the Newcastle Falcons and Montpellier in home-and-away clashes, respectively.
The Pride will wrap up their pool stage against the Ospreys on the Highveld, aiming for crucial home victories to qualify for the knockout stage again.
With new head coach John Plumtree on board, the Sharks kick off their campaign in the Challenge Cup against Pau before a local derby against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, and have home advantage for their encounter with Oyonnax Rugby, before closing their pool stage against Dragons in Wales.
The Cheetahs embodied their mascot by punching well above their weight in unfavourable conditions in their European debut, which earned the 2023 Currie Cup champions a recall as one of two invited teams to the Challenge Cup. This time, the Cheetahs will play one of their pool matches – against the Sharks – at the Free State Stadium, before moving on to call Amsterdam home.
CHAMPIONS CUP FIXTURES
9 December vs Saracens (h)
16 December vs Lyon (a)
13 January vs Bristol Bears (a)
20 January vs Bordeaux-Bègles (h)
10 December vs Leicester Tigers (a)
16 December vs La Rochelle (h)
13 January vs Sale Sharks (h)
20 January vs Stade Français (a)
CHALLENGE CUP FIXTURES
10 December vs Perpignan (a)
16 December vs Newcastle Falcons (h)
13 January vs Montpellier (a)
21 January vs Ospreys (h)
9 December vs Pau (h)
17 December vs Cheetahs (a)
13 January vs Oyonnax (h)
21 January vs Dragons (a)
9 December vs Zebre (a)
17 December vs Sharks (h)
14 January vs Pau (h*)
20 January vs Oyonnax (a)