Nothing beats playing in Europe for SA’s teams

South Africa’s involvement in the Champions Cup is a mouth-watering prospect, writes former Springbok STEFAN TERBLANCHE.

ALSO READ: What’s in our latest issue?

Subscribe here

The Heineken Cup (now known as the Champions Cup) is often referred to as the ‘Super Rugby’ competition of the northern hemisphere, and arguably the toughest rugby competition in the world, for reasons I will share with you shortly.

After the 2003 World Cup in Australia – a tough Kamp Staaldraad in the buildup to the tournament and an early quarter-final exit at the hands of the All Blacks in Melbourne – it was time for me to head overseas after five years at the Sharks and as many with the Boks.

My newly adopted team for the next four years would be the newly formed regional Welsh team, the Ospreys, based out of Swansea and Neath. Not only did they play in the Celtic League, which is now the Pro16, they also played in the Heineken Cup as it was then called.

From this year, the big four South African teams, the Lions, Sharks, Bulls and Stormers will head into the Pro16. This is also the same league that hosted the Cheetahs and Kings for the past couple of years.

The Heineken Cup, though, is comprised of six pools of four teams, representing six countries and including round-robin games home and away. The one interesting fact about these pool fixtures is that in the month of December you play a back-to-back fixture against the same team, home and away.

The competition is staggered over eight months with a final venue selected before the start of the competition, regardless of the two teams in the final. When I played my last professional game in the Heineken Cup final we had two Irish teams playing for the cup, and even though it was held at Twickenham in London, we had a full house of 82 500 and many more watching outside as they could not get a ticket.

The winners of each pool go straight into a quarter-final and the log position is determined by the number of points you accumulated during your pool fixtures.

The six winners of each pool occupy the first six position on this log and the best two runners-up with the most points will fill the other two spots. From there, it’s like any other competition where 1 will play 8 at home and 2 will play 7 at home, working your way down. This is followed by semis and finals.

Should the home team not have a stadium big enough to host a reasonable number of spectators, a neutral venue will be selected by the event organisers. When we played our semi-final in 2012, our home ground Ravenhill in Belfast was too small, with a capacity of only 12 000. We travelled all the way to Dublin to face Edinburgh at the 40 000-seater Aviva Stadium.

These pools can be an absolute nightmare to get out of. They are drawn out a hat and teams could quite easily end up in a pool with the top teams from France, England and Ireland fighting for only one position. Imagine having to play Leinster, Toulouse and Exeter in the same pool.

The reason I say it’s arguably the hardest competition to win is the fact that should you only lose one game, you could be out of the competition. Yes, that’s correct: one game!

When the Rainbow Cup started, one of the most exciting things I heard about this competition is that the winner of the South African ‘conference’ could end up with an automatic entrance into this year’s Heineken Cup. Playing in the Pro16 is one thing, but playing rugby in Europe in the Heineken Cup is The Thing.

Photo: Getty Images