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Heineken Champions Cup: La Rochelle Looks To Follow Up Cinderella Run

Heineken Champions Cup: La Rochelle Looks To Follow Up Cinderella Run

The Heineken Champions Cup begins its 28th season of competition, featuring some of the best and brightest names in the sport.

Dec 1, 2022 by Briar Napier
Heineken Champions Cup: La Rochelle Looks To Follow Up Cinderella Run

The best of the best in European club rugby have come to play.

Only this time, there's an outsider that's come to join them.

The Heineken Champions Cup—the gold standard of club rugby competition—begins its 28th season of competition next week, featuring some of the best and brightest names in the sport duking it out over a five-month period. 

The season will culminate in a final clash for one of the world's most coveted rugby trophies. 

It's a long and arduous grind to capture the crown, but upstarts and powerhouses alike across the continent have shown the grit needed over the past three decades to secure it. Now, however, there are new players in town from a new place. They're ready to show what they're made of and they're looking to take some hardware back to their homelands.

Here's a look at what to expect in the Heineken Champions Cup, which is set to kick off its 2022-2023 season. Catch all of the competition live on FloRugby.

Champions Cup Breakdown

Familiar with the UEFA Champions League in soccer? Think of the Champions Cup as club rugby's answer to that. 

It's a 24-team tournament featuring the best of the best clubs from England's Premiership Rugby, France's Top 14 and the multi-national United Rugby Championship.

The 2022-2023 Champions Cup campaign kicks off this weekend with the first round of fixtures in the pool stage, leading eventually to a 16-team knockout-style tournament, which will culminate with a final match, scheduled to be held at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on May 20, 2023. 

Eight clubs from each of the three represented leagues will take part in this year's competition, with French side La Rochelle being the defending champion. The team won its first Champions Cup last season, and France's 10th overall, tying it with England as the winningest country since the competition it launched as the Heineken Cup for the 1995-1996 season.

The most successful club in Champions Cup history is French powerhouses Toulouse, a five-time champion that has made at least the semifinals in each of the past four tournaments, winning it all to complete the 2020-2021 season. 

However, look for the Irish contingent—in this year's competition, that's Leinster, Ulster and Munster—to push forth and try and win for the first time since Leinster (2017-2018), especially considering that every player (that was selected to the most recent squad) on the No. 1-ranked Irish national side plays their club rugby with Ireland-based clubs in the United Rugby Championship. 

Then, there's the new wrinkle of South African clubs in the Champions Cup for the first time, too. There's more on what they could bring to the table down below. The changes bring more high-quality rugby from one of the sport's most storied nations.

La Rochelle Up For A Repeat?

A club with humble beginnings that was playing in the French second tier when the Champions Cup first began, Stade Rochelais—more commonly known by its city name of La Rochelle, or its nickname, Les Corsaires (The Privateers), in reference to its location as a port hub on France's western coastline—struggled to find a home in its domestic leagues for much of the 21st century, bouncing in and out of the Top 14 and not coming close to sniffing European glory. 

But under the presidential leadership of former La Rochelle player Vincent Merling, who kickstarted a 2015 campaign that encourages local businesses to invest in and support the club, the team has surged to heights that previously were unimaginable. 

Finishing as the runner-up in the EPCR Challenge Cup in 2018-2019—which was its deepest European run in any competition—La Rochelle one-upped its own achievements just a few years later when it finished runner-up in the Champions Cup. The team then won the entire thing last season in one of the most feel-good moments in the competition's history. 

This year, however, is a new challenge never seen at the club. Rather than being the hunters, La Rochelle is in an unfamiliar position as the hunted. 

So far, the Privateers seem to be handling the pressure well, as Irish coach Ronan O'Gara's side is second in the Top 14 standings through 11 matches played. They have 31 points, four behind Toulouse's table-topping 35.

Plenty of players on the roster have been in great form for quite some time, as evidenced by the recent continental triumphs, but one player to watch out for is 25-year-old hooker Pierre Bourgarit, who has four tries in the Top 14 this year for La Rochelle and scored his first international try for the French national team against Japan in July.

South Africa Ready To Cause Ruckus

Welcome to the fold, South Africa. 

For the first time since the competition began, the Champions Cup will welcome teams from outside Europe, as South African's Bulls, Sharks and Stormers—all of which joined the United Rugby Championship last season and therefore were eligible to qualify for continental competitions the next season because of it—will all participate in this year's edition of the Champions Cup, giving the competition a new wrinkle, and country outside the Home Nations and France for the first time since Romania (1995-1996).

With the three South African clubs best known for their triumphs in Super Rugby throughout that competition's history, before eventually leaving it in 2020, their first foray into the URC marked a major statement for the quality of the country's club rugby scene.

The Cape Town-based Stormers won the championship in their first season in the division, defeating Pretoria's Bulls in an all-South African final in June. 

So far, things haven't slowed down much for the two finalists in their second URC season, with the Bulls and Stormers currently placed third and fourth, respectively, in the URC table. 

But as for the types of players those more in tune with the European club rugby scene should expect from the South African teams, look for some familiar names from the Springbok sides that just visited Europe for the Autumn Nations Series internationals. 

At the Stormers, beastly prop Frans Malherbe and speedy fly-half Damian Willemse both helped the national team win the World Cup three years ago, while 20-year-old Bulls wing Canan Moodie looked excellent in The Rugby Championship, even scoring his first try against Australia in Sydney. 

Oh, and the Sharks just have Boks centurion and elite lock Eben Etzebeth, plus national team captain and loose forward Siya Kolisi in their ranks, too.