2022 Stade Francais vs Benetton Rugby

EPCR Challenge Cup: South Africa Looks To Make Mark In First Challenge Cup

EPCR Challenge Cup: South Africa Looks To Make Mark In First Challenge Cup

The EPCR Challenge Cup is one of the most prestigious European club rugby tournaments – second only to the top-tier Champions Cup.

Nov 30, 2022 by Briar Napier
EPCR Challenge Cup: South Africa Looks To Make Mark In First Challenge Cup

The EPCR Challenge Cup is one of the most prestigious European club rugby tournaments – second only to the top-tier Champions Cup. 

Some of the finest clubs and names the sport has ever seen have plied their trade in the nearly three-decade competition, competing for glory against the very best in Europe – and beyond – and an automatic spot in the top-tier tournament, the Champions Cup, for the next season.

Rising powers in club rugby often like to make statements by dominating the Challenge Cup, so if there’s to be a European team quickly on the rise across the next couple of years, there’s a solid chance they had a good Challenge Cup campaign for some added momentum.

With another Challenge Cup campaign on the horizon, it gives the teams within the field another golden opportunity to turn that momentum into something historic.

Here’s a look ahead at what’s to come when the EPCR Challenge Cup gets under way next month, with matches throughout the season being streamed live on FloRugby.

Challenge Cup: A Breakdown

The Challenge Cup has been around in some form since 1996 and has been under the jurisdiction of European Professional Club Rugby (or EPCR) since the 2014-2015 season. 

An 18-team tournament at the moment, 16 of those clubs are invited from Europe based on their previous season’s results in domestic competitions. Three hail from England’s Premiership (down from five after the Worcester Warriors and Wasps qualified but entered administration, suspending them from the competition), six clubs are from France’s Top 14 and eight teams come from the previous United Rugby Championship season. 

Most of those URC clubs will hail from Europe (namely Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales), but for the first time in the Challenge Cup’s history, teams from South Africa are eligible to participate after clubs from the country joined the URC in 2021-2022, allowing them able to play in “continental” competitions like the Challenge Cup. 

Sure enough, Johannesburg-based Lions qualified and will play in European competition for the first time based on this criteria. The Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs also additionally invited – bringing us to 18 clubs – after previously being excluded from European competition when it was part of the URC’s predecessor, the Pro14. 

Pool stage play in for the 2022-2023 Challenge Cup starts Dec. 9, with two groups of nine battling before the top 4 in each pool at the end of the stage advance to the Round of 16. They’ll then join those eliminated from the Champions Cup’s pool stage to do battle in a knockout format all the way up until the Challenge Cup final, scheduled for May 19, 2023. 

The final will take place at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. A full pool stage fixture list is available here.

Welcome, South Africa

As mentioned previously, this upcoming continental rugby season is a milestone one for South African clubs, who will get to show their might against the best in Europe for the first time. The teams in this year’s Challenge Cup field can definitely give the European clubs a run for their money, too. 

First is the Lions, who qualified through the United Rugby Championship as one of the four trailblazing South African clubs (along with the Bulls, Stormers and Sharks) that made the leap and joined the competition last year. Starting first as a Rugby Union, the team has a long and winding history dating to the late 1800s and early days in their homeland’s Currie Cup. The Lions franchise officially began in 1996 as a founding member of the Super 12, a highly-successful predecessor to what eventually became Super Rugby. 

Now part of the URC, the Lions’ debut campaign last season didn’t go planned—finishing last among South African teams and 12th of 16 clubs overall in the competition. But, through seven URC matches in the current campaign, they sit seventh in the competition and are currently in a 2023-24 Champions Cup place. 

Their recent run of form and familiarity with the field could give the Lions an edge in the Challenge Cup over their fellow countrymen. The Cheetahs have not participated in the URC but have strong ties to the competition, having played two seasons in the Pro14 before COVID-19 restrictions limited the Cheetahs from traveling. Now, back in the fold against old friends, will the team be able to readjust quickly? Or will they find themselves struggling to stay afloat in the Challenge Cup deep end?

Will France/England Continue Its Hold At The Top?

Since the competition’s inception, no two countries have dominated the Challenge Cup like France and England, which have combined to win 23 of a possible 26 titles and eight of the past nine. 

However, on that same note, it’s France that’s on an especially good run of form in the competition, as it has picked up five titles since 2015, with Lyon – in its first major trophy win since capturing the French domestic crown in 1933 – winning the 2021-2022 Challenge Cup in an all-French final, beating Toulon at the Stade de Marseille. 

There’s a higher likelihood than usual that it’ll be a French team on top again, too, with England only having three teams in this year’s competition. That’s due to the aforementioned financial issues at two Premiership clubs that would’ve qualified, so there’s a higher percentage of teams from France in the field. A third of the Challenge Cup field hails from the Top 14. 

Of those six teams, Toulon will be looking for its first Challenge Cup. With last year’s runner-up finish, Toulon has four second-place finishes at the event, but former competition winners Section (1999-2000) and Stade Francais (2016-2017) also will look to add to their trophy collections. 

Still, it would be foolish to completely count out the English representatives in the field, considering the Premiership’s status as one of the top domestic rugby competitions on the planet. 

Bath (2007-2008) and Bristol Bears (2019-2020) both have finished on top of the Challenge Cup field, as well, while the Newcastle Falcons are looking to finally break through to a final after five semifinal appearances, the last of which came in during the 2017-2018 edition.