Leicester Tigers fly-half Handré Pollard has explained how highly the Heineken Champions Cup is regarded by South African players, and what the nation’s three sides will bring to this season’s competition.
Vodacom Bulls, Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers are set to debut in the Heineken Champions Cup in an historic expansion, providing an already-elite tournament with further quality, while Toyota Cheetahs and Emirates Lion are an added dynamic in the EPCR Challenge Cup.
Pollard revealed that players have moved to European sides in the past simply to play in EPCR competitions, and that the South African clubs’ success in last season’s United Rugby Championship (URC) is evidence of how competitive they will be in the Heineken Champions Cup.
“It’s the greatest club competition,” the experienced Springbok said. “Everybody wants to be a part of it; I know a lot of guys that are playing in Europe just to be a part of the [Heineken] Champions Cup and [EPCR] Challenge Cup.
“To have the South African clubs in it as well, that’s something different, but it’s just the greatest competition there is and its basically rugby immortality if you win it.
“I think they’re going to just make it even better, like they did with the URC- I think the URC has gone up heaps in terms of its quality.
“Travel’s going to be tough, up and down a bit, but it’s alright, it’s not the end of the world, no jet lag involved.
First question to everyone at season launch…
Who’s lifting the #HeinekenChampionsCup this season – and they couldn’t say themselves (as much as they tried) 👀
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) November 30, 2022
“I think it’s going to be great to have the South Africans in it – they’ll bring a physicality that I think will compete with some of the French teams who I think physically have been dominating the competition lately.
“It’s going to be good to see that- it’s just a different flavour, [it] keeps it new, keeps it fresh.”
One player Pollard will be keeping a close eye on is Vodacom Bulls wing Kurt-Lee Arendse, who scored a superb try for South Africa against England in the Autumn Nations Series.
“I think it’s because it’s pretty fresh in my memory, but Kurt-Lee Arendse is unreal,” he said when asked which South African player could take the Heineken Champions Cup by storm.
“We’ve been fortunate to have Cheslin Kolbe with South Africa for years, and no one has really come close to doing what he does, but this guy is the real deal, he’s going to show that throughout the season, it’s going to be great to watch.”
In the summer, Pollard joined Leicester from Montpellier Hérault Rugby, where he lifted the EPCR Challenge Cup in 2021, though he admitted that the Heineken Champions Cup is another level of competition.
“I mean, it’s so tough,” he said. “The [EPCR] Challenge Cup and [Heineken] Champions Cup are not even in the same bracket, to be honest.
“It’s tough, really tough. I think seeding is very important so getting through the group stage well gives you the best opportunity, so hopefully can get out the group stage and give ourselves a shot.”
Leicester kick off their Pool B campaign away at Ospreys on December 11 before hosting ASM Clermont Auvergne on December 17.