The five South African teams debuting in EPCR competitions this season have all advanced from the pool stages of the Heineken Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup as their addition has been hailed by players and coaches.
In the Heineken Champions Cup, Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers both secured home ties in the Round of 16 after winning three out of their four pool stage games, welcoming Munster Rugby and Harlequins to Durban and Cape Town respectively.
Meanwhile, Vodacom Bulls set up a mouth-watering encounter at five-time champions Stade Toulousain after chalking up two victories.
In the EPCR Challenge Cup, two wins and a draw in the pool stage saw Emirates Lions land a home Round of 16 tie against EPCR heavyweights Racing 92 in Johannesburg.
Meanwhile, Toyota Cheetahs secured their progression in the most dramatic fashion, as Siya Masuku’s last-gasp penalty at Section Paloise earned them a second victory over the TOP 14 side and a trip to last season’s finalists, RC Toulon.
The South African outfits have thrived in their first foray into EPCR competitions and following the conclusion of Cell C Sharks’ Heineken Champions Cup pool stage campaign, World Cup-winning lock Eben Etzebeth heaped praise on the tournament.
“I think it is the best club competition in the world,” he said. “I have been a part of Super Rugby and the TOP 14 and [the] URC, but I must say the Champions Cup is something different, something special.
Big @EbenEtzebeth is loving life in the #HeinekenChampionsCup 😍@SharksRugby fans how much have you enjoyed your first season so far?
Read more ➡️ https://t.co/VwiDJPLGGH pic.twitter.com/VNQMvE3HEw
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) January 24, 2023
“There is a whole aura around the Champions Cup, special music, it’s the best of Europe, and we get to play against new teams.”
Cell C Sharks director of rugby Neil Powell also underlined how eager his players are to lift the trophy in the side’s maiden campaign.
“The players have responded really well,” he said. “From the start, the Boks – the likes of Siya [Kolisi] and Eben – wanted to win it.
“It was just a case of understanding the competition, the flow of it, how important it is. Every game is important.”
For Vodacom Bulls forwards coach Russell Winter, it has become clear how difficult it is to win the Heineken Champions Cup – particularly amid varying weather conditions – but it is a task he is thrilled to be taking on.
“We’re learning that the Champions Cup is actually the elite of world rugby,” he said. “If you’re not dominant up front, you’ve got no chance. If you don’t front up, it’s going to be a long day.
“That expansive play that you look to play in Super Rugby is more difficult in the snow and wet. The pack needs to be strong and it’s attritional. It’s difficult.
“Some of the guys had never seen snow before, but we’re blessed to be doing this. We’re blessed to be here.”
Emirates Lions head coach Ivan van Rooyen is delighted to be hosting Racing in the EPCR Challenge Cup Round of 16 – a team who have reached the Heineken Champions Cup final on three occasions.
“We are extremely excited to play the Round of 16 against one of the original European powerhouses at home,” he said. “It will provide our players an opportunity to test themselves once more against the best in the world.”
ROUND OF 16 FIXTURE DETAILS 🚨
Who are you backing to make the quarter-finals? 👀#HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/bo7Nex4GYt
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) January 26, 2023
The South African clubs’ inclusion has provided new experiences for not only that quintet, but for their opponents too. Harlequins captain Alex Dombrandt revealed how enjoyable his team’s trip to Durban to play Cell C Sharks in Round 1 was.
“Firstly, it has been a great week in South Africa,” he said after the game. “It has been great for us to have a mix-up and spend a week in Durban.
“Obviously, 30-degree [Celsius] heat makes a change from the minus score back home, which has been nice.”
Speaking to the BBC Rugby Union Weekly podcast, Quins scrum-half Danny Care branded their week in South Africa as “genuinely one of my greatest memories of being a rugby player”.
Naturally then, he is looking forward to his club’s Round of 16 tie at DHL Stadium. “A couple of the boys were thinking the Stormers away might be quite a nice one, but we’ll go anywhere,” he said.
“It’s an amazing competition and we’re delighted that we’re still going to be in the hat for the next [round].”
For Toulouse head coach Ugo Mola, South African sides have “raised the level of the Champions Cup” and he is itching to see his team take on Vodacom Bulls at Le Stadium in the Round of 16.
“It’s exciting to challenge them,” he commented. “South African teams have turned things upside down. You may as well play them as they’re here. I can’t wait.”
Dragons RFC were one of the EPCR Challenge Cup sides presented with the fresh challenge of visiting South Africa in Round 1 and head coach Dai Flanagan revealed his squad relished their stint in the country, which began with a thrilling 31-31 draw with Emirates Lions.
“We worked hard for those three points,” he said. “We were the first team in our league to stay out here for three weeks and the boys had a great time. It’s massive for us.
“We’ve had three really enjoyable weeks out here. Our performances have got better and better.”