South African sides have earned the right to mix it with the best in Europe in the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup, according to former England fly-half Andy Goode, writes Sportsbeat's Josh Graham.
The 2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup welcomes United Rugby Championship winners the Stormers, who will face Clermont Auvergne and London Irish in Pool B, and runners-up the Bulls who were drawn with 2020 winners Exeter Chiefs and reigning EPCR Challenge Cup champions Lyon in Pool A.
Fifth-place URC finishers the Sharks will also compete in the Heineken Champions Cup with fixtures against Harlequins and Bordeaux-Begles while the Lions will play Stade Francais and Worcester Warriors in the EPCR Challenge Cup.
Former Pro14 outfit the Cheetahs are the final side taking part from the Rainbow Nation after accepting an invitation to play in the EPCR Challenge Cup but will be based in Italy where they will welcome Pau and Scarlets in Pool B.
Goode, a two-time Heineken Champions Cup winner who played Super Rugby for the Durban-based Sharks in 2010, said: “Physically it is going to be a huge test for every team playing against a South African side.
“I think it’s brilliant for the competition, we are trying to improve the legacy and the quality of it, and you only have to look at the URC where the final was between two South African teams.
“The passion that you get from South African rugby players and fans over here or over there is just phenomenal, it’s a huge addition to the competition.
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) June 28, 2022
“It’s basically the Mecca of rugby, South Africa, it’s where you want to go and play and test yourself whether for a South African team or against.
“It’s a beautiful country and what other fan wouldn’t want to go and see it as well. We all understand there’s a fair bit of travel involved but it’s good for evolution.
“These South African teams bring quality and a lot of physicality. Their national team are World Cup champions, they are URC champions, so they have earned the right to be here and they will be a fantastic addition to the tournament.”
Goode’s former Leicester Tigers teammate Benjamin Kayser, who spent eight years at Clermont, admits the exciting arrival of South African sides makes it feel like two brand new competitions and although it is not without its complications, the positives far outweigh the negatives.
The five-time Heineken Champions Cup finalist said: “Adding the South African teams - however complicated the logistics will be - it’s challenging the best, so it will improve the talent, the competition and the general level. It’s mouth-watering!
“It’s hugely exciting and clearly a new competition. It’s about the best teams in the world challenging each other, adding value on the pitch, and putting on quality rugby to everybody’s delight.
“South Africa are the reigning World Cup winners and it was only a matter of time before we tried to make this competition better.
“The nature of the competition will absolutely change but if it’s for better quality rugby and pushing the boundaries of rugby into the future, then I’m excited for it.”
While some may question the ability of fans to travel to fixtures, South African presenter Elma Smit is particularly looking forward to the Stormers’ trip to face the Exiles at Brentford Community Stadium, right in the heart of the expat community in south west London.
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) July 1, 2022
She said: “It is going to be really interesting to see if the Stormers can carry their momentum into the Heineken Champions Cup after they pulled together for coach John Dobson and won the URC.
“I expect Brentford to be sold out and there to be a lot of Afrikaans spoken and that should be a very good encounter!”
But Smit warned that despite their recent URC success, it did take the South African sides time to adjust to that competition and their introduction to European competition may follow a similar pattern although she expects them to rise to the challenge with plenty of experience to call on across the nation.
Smit added: “The South African teams did not hit the ground running in the URC. They almost perform better when they have their backs against the wall.
“I think it might be a harsh reality check initially for a lot of the South African sides playing in unfamiliar locations and places with massively vocal crowds like France.
“What you should probably not underestimate is that the stats say that over 500 South Africans are playing European rugby already in shirts of various clubs which means there is a lot of institutional IP and experience.
“People have played in the Heineken Champions Cup before and would be able to help their local clubs and coaches for example, Jake White coaches the Bulls and used to coach Montpellier.”
European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) is the tournament organiser for the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup, featuring the very best club rugby teams from England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales and – for the first time from the 2022/23 season – South Africa.