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Euro Build-Up: SA fans spoilt for choice

SPOTLIGHT: This weekend marks another historic time for South African rugby.

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The South African rugby landscape is going to change substantially with the country’s first entry into the Champions Cup this weekend.

If you are looking for which games to focus on among the 12 that will be played, it really is hard to make a choice.

For fans of the South African franchises that are competing, Saturday afternoon into the evening won’t be too difficult – the three games featuring local teams run successively, with the Sharks kicking off against Harlequins in Durban and the Bulls ending the day by hosting Lyon.

In between those games is sandwiched the appetising visit of the United Rugby Championship (URC) title holders, the Stormers, to Clermont Auvergne for a game that will be interesting for the uniqueness of the challenge faced by the Cape team.

John Dobson’s men are determined to make an impression and a statement but have been told by everyone they’ve spoken to that they are in for quite an experience.

“The Champions Cup is another world, we know that we are entering a whole new world next weekend and we are tremendously excited about it,” said Dobson after his team’s URC win over the Dragons in Gqeberha.

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“We are also excited to be starting off away against Clermont, although we do understand it is a formidable prospect. Dwayne Peel [Scarlets coach] said that it is one of the most incredible rugby experiences. Apparently it is hugely intimidating to play there, and you are confronted by an intimidating sea of yellow and blue.”

It is indeed a new world that the Stormers are stepping into, and an exciting one too. For instance, the Sharks, desperate to get the Champions Cup off to a good start after struggling recently, are in for quite an experience when they head to London for the return fixture against Harlequins at The Stoop in January.

“That game will be very special to be part of,” said Harlequins club captain Stephan Lewies, who was a stalwart at the Sharks for many years before heading overseas.

“As you know there are a lot of South Africans living in London so I am sure The Stoop will be packed. It is almost every week anyway. The ground seats 14 000 people, but sometimes it feels like you are playing in front of a full Twickenham. We think we have the best supporters in the Prem (English Premiership), and I’d like to say the whole world. Hopefully, there will still be more Harlequins fans than South African fans when we play that game.”

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Lewies is one of several South Africans who are either playing the Champions Cup or have played in rugby’s equivalent of Soccer Champions League who rate it as the best club/provincial competition in world rugby. And a glance at the first round of fixtures shows just why it is so tough for the players but also so watchable for rugby supporters.

While the Sharks and Quins are locking horns at Kings Park on Saturday afternoon, the leading team on the current URC log, Leinster, will be visiting Paris to play against Racing ’92. Both teams went deep in the competition last year, and Racing will be the biggest test that Leinster have faced so far in the 2022/2023 season.

The away games in France are always noted for how tough they are, and Leinster’s strong fightback in a riveting URC derby against Ulster last weekend was a perfect appetiser for this game.

Lewies has played Super Rugby, as have many of the other players who rate the Champions Cup as the best competition, so his opinion is worth noting. While in the early years of Super Rugby, when it competed for by 12 teams, it was possibly the world’s most watchable competition, but in latter years the expansions in the number of competing teams changed that.

What also makes a difference for South African fans is the similarity of the time zones. Instead of games being spread out from early in the morning SA time (for games played in New Zealand) through to around midnight (Argentina), the fixtures in the Champions Cup are squeezed into a much narrower time frame than was the case in Super Rugby.

But the binge of rugby watching can happen over two separate days, or three when there are more games on a Friday night. For instance, this week we see three really interesting Sunday match-ups in the form of Ulster playing away to the Sale Sharks in mid-afternoon, followed by a repeat of last year’s epic semi-final between Munster and Toulouse in Limerick. And then to cap off the weekend, it is Leicester Tigers, who were knocked out by Leinster in the knock-out phase last year, who travel to Swansea to play the Ospreys.

The Ospreys have been poor in the URC this season but they came to South Africa with most of their top players missing. In fact, there were nine Ospreys players in the Wales team that lost to Australia in the last game of the November international window, and they should all be back.

With Ospreys having so many international players and the Tigers coached by England elect Steve Borthwick and featuring Bok No8 Jasper Wiese in addition to a raft of other internationals, even this game backs up Jake White’s claim that the Champions Cup is the closest you get to international rugby without it actually being an official international.

“We will be coming up against teams boasting several test players, both in the starting team and on the bench. Remember most of the European teams don’t just draw from the player pool base in their country, they have South Africans, Kiwis, Aussies, Argentinians and players from the Pacific islands,” said the Bulls director of rugby.

“I have experienced this competition before when coaching Montpellier, and whether it is the Champions Cup or the Challenge Cup (to be competed in by the Emirates Lions and Toyota Cheetahs) it is incredibly tough… I think we (South Africans) may be in for a bit of a wakeup call next weekend.”

Weekend Champions Cup fixtures

(First round of Group Stage)

London Irish v Montpellier (Friday)

Racing ’92 v Leinster (Saturday)
Sharks v Harlequins (Saturday)
Gloucester v Bordeaux Begles (Saturday)
Clermont Auvergne v Stormers (Saturday)
La Rochelle v Northampton (Saturday)
Bulls v Lyon (Saturday)
Castres v Exeter (Saturday)

Sale v Ulster (Sunday)
Saracens v Edinburgh (Sunday)
Munster v Toulouse (Sunday)
Ospreys v Leicester (Sunday)

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