2022 DHL Stormers vs ASM Clermont Auvergne

Three South African Sides Make Champions Cup Knockouts In First Opportunity

Three South African Sides Make Champions Cup Knockouts In First Opportunity

All three South African teams competing in the Heineken Champions Cup have qualified for the last 16 at the first time of asking.

Jan 22, 2023 by RugbyPass
Three South African Sides Make Champions Cup Knockouts In First Opportunity

All three South African teams competing in the Heineken Champions Cup have qualified for the last 16 at the first time of asking.

While plenty of controversy circulated their admittance into the competition at the start of the season, few can fault the quality they have brought to Europe's most prestigious club rugby competition.

Between them, the Cell C Sharks, Vodacom Bulls and DHL Stormers have laid down a marker of their intentions with impressive and, at times, dominant displays against the best Europe has to offer.

High-profile players, such as Antoine Dupont and Joe Marler, have sounded off on the mere presence of these teams in the competition, yet all the while, amidst the noise and the fanfare, these three pillars of South African club rugby have delivered on the field.

The Stormers and Sharks have even wrapped up a home tie in the last 16, elevating their chances of landing among the final eight teams.

It goes without saying that the additional element of continental travel, which their opponents will have to undertake, is an added bonus that works work in their favor. After all, it's proven to be a useful tool throughout the pool stage.

While the South African sides and their URC compatriots have had a season to acclimatize to long-distance journeys from Europe to South Africa, and vice versa, these long-haul flights are a completely new entity for teams hailing from England and France.

As a result, all three South African teams have remained unbeaten on home soil, as traveling teams have struggled to quickly acclimatize to long distance flights, disjointed preparation patterns and completely new training and match settings.

The Stormers and Sharks, in particular, proved impregnable when playing with a home advantage, sweeping aside their opponents with relative ease.

The reigning URC champions beat the 14 men of London Irish 34-14, before dispatching Clermont 30-16 on Saturday. 

Meanwhile, the Sharks outwrestled Harlequins 39-31 in December and then went on to annihilate Bordeaux Begles 32-3 in Durban.

Having such a unique home-field advantage is evidently a benefit, but it's not the sole reason for South African success in the Champions Cup. These teams are packed with talent and can match almost anyone for physicality and attacking ingenuity.

Let's not forget the Stormers and Bulls were the pick of the bunch in the URC last season and faced off in the league's inaugural final.

The Stormers won that contest, and while they haven't been quite as mercurial this term, they have still shown enough flashes of excellence over the past few weeks to unnerve any rival. 

Dan du Plessis' try in the home drubbing of Clermont encapsulates this brilliantly.

After carrying into contact, hooker Joseph Dweba unleashed a subtle offload to his center, who turned on the afterburners and danced his way over the line. The moment of class came at a crucial point in the match, stifling Clermont into submission, after the French team had looked a genuine threat.

The balance of forward power, delicate ball-handling and evasive running all was on show in this score, and these characteristics have become typical weapons of all three South African juggernauts.

You only need to look back at the Sharks' win over Harlequins in Durban for further proof. 

In that game, Jaden Hendrikse watched his forward pack dominate an attacking scrum, before feigning to pass the ball out to his fly-half. He then dummied, pivoted and delivered a sumptuous out-the-back pass down the short side to the onrushing Makazole Mapimpi, who dotted down in the corner, untouched.

The ingenuity involved cannot be underestimated and goes a long way to illustrate the true depth of attacking flair in the South African ranks.

The Bulls are not always associated with this, though. Their style is rather more pragmatic, built on territory and big forward carries, but that doesn't mean their style of play is any less entertaining.

Last weekend, in Pretoria, they demonstrated this when hosting the Exeter Chiefs. 

A sublime attack began with replacement hooker Bismarck Du Plessis earning a turnover. The move then came to life when the ball was distributed wide to Kurt-Lee Arendse. The newly anointed Springboks star stormed into space, before offloading to center Wandisile Simelane, who in turn, passed back inside for David Kriel to score.

Physical, clinical and evasive.

The Bulls' tool kit, just like the Stormers and Sharks, is filled to the brim with weapons, which puts them in good stead, as they prepare for a first taste of knockout European rugby.

The question still remains whether these three sides can take over the competition in the same way they overran the URC in their debut season. 

There's still a long way to go, but early signs indicate these three South African teams are here for the long haul.

It will take a lot to usurp Leinster, Saracens, La Rochelle and Toulouse. All four are gunning for the title and have won it before, but let's not forget La Rochelle's famous win last year was its first. That may just set the president for a South African team to follow suit.

Written by Stefan Frost