South African clubs have made a huge impression in the Heineken Champions Cup this season, with all three of the debuting sides reaching the knockout stage.
Two of those teams – Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers – have booked places in the quarter-finals after stunning Round of 16 victories, while Vodacom Bulls bowed out at the hands of five-time champions Stade Toulousain. The six teams that duo join in the next round have all lifted EPCR’s elite trophy before.
In the EPCR Challenge Cup, Emirates Lions remain in contention after an incredible thrashing of French heavyweights Racing 92 in Johannesburg to reach the last eight.
Harlequins head coach Tabai Matson saw his side beaten 32-28 by DHL Stormers in the Round of 16, but after a superb game in Cape Town, he was keen to underline the quality and variety South African clubs have provided this season.
“I think having the South Africans in this competition is phenomenal,” he stated. “For all us old people saying ‘European Cup’, it’ll probably take us another six months to stop saying that!
“I think it’s great for the game. It’s really different. There are natural trends in the game in other countries because of the climate, because of the mentality of the players, the refereeing.
“It’s like a World Cup with contrasting teams. That’s really enjoyable and hopefully for the fans, the contrast of teams matching up with different hemispheres is good too. The players loved their week — although they won’t now because of that outcome!
“The ability for the Stormers to be flying to England to play a quarter-final is pretty cool. It just adds to it. The travel down here is very different for all the European teams, unless you’re an international.
“It was a Springbok front row out there today and the Sharks are similar, but ultimately you’re running into the teeth of the home team. There are a lot of Test players sprinkled through their roster, so games like this do become a Test match.
“To come here and have the South African hospitality, it’s a pleasure and it’s easy. That really adds to the experience of the players.”
No.8 Alex Dombrandt, who scored a try brace for Quins at DHL Stormers, was one of those players who relished the chance to play in South Africa, with the Gallagher Premiership side having also travelled to Cell C Sharks in Round 1.
“They were great conditions for running rugby. Dry ball is what we like,” the England international said.
“When you’ve got a team that attacks the way that they do, they can score tries in quick succession. They are a team littered with internationals, so it’s great to be able to play in this competition and really test yourself.
“It’s been good for us. We’ve had a week in Durban and a week in Cape Town. We’ve had a great couple of weeks in South Africa and they’ve been extremely welcoming to us.
“We’ve loved our time here. Playing against a team like the Stormers littered with internationals is as close to Test match rugby as you’re going to get.”
DHL Stormers head coach John Dobson highlighted the fascinating clash between South African and European playing styles, and is keen to extend their Heineken Champions Cup run when they visit 2020 champions Exeter Chiefs in the quarter-finals this Saturday.
“The Heineken [Champions] Cup is ‘the’ tournament,” he said. “We’ll go full noise for the quarter-final. The contrast between our style of rugby and the European style, it’s brilliant for the competition.
“I imagine there are planes full of people wanting to spend a week in Cape Town. We’re grateful to be here.”
DHL Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff added:“Dobbo always shows a photo in meetings of a Stormers v Toulouse Heineken Cup final — it’s something we’re working towards.
“The more frequently you play against these teams, the more you start understanding their style of rugby. In the bigger picture, it is a big benefit.”
Cell C Sharks director of rugby Neil Powell, who guided his team to a 50-35 demolition of two-time champions Munster Rugby in the Round of 16 in Durban, explained the atmosphere that has been built around the Heineken Champions Cup as they prepare for a trip to Toulouse in the quarter-finals this Saturday.
“This is the first year we have been part of it, so we are trying to create a bit of hype, a bit of culture around being part of the [Heineken Champions Cup],” he said.
“We have really tried to create a vibe and energy and a bit of a culture around this, but we know the closer you get to the final, the more difficult it is going to be.”
Cell C Sharks captain Siya Kolisi acknowledged the prestige of the side he helped defeat in the Round of 16 in Munster and hailed the raucous home support at Hollywoodbets Kings Park.
“They are a great side. They’ve got a great history in this competition,” he said.
“I am really proud of the way we stood up. The one special thing is the people of Durban, the people of KZN (Kwazulu-Natal). The energy they give us is huge. We are so grateful for them.”
With Munster joining Harlequins as the first teams in play a Heineken Champions Cup knockout stage game in South Africa, the Irish province’s captain, Peter O’Mahony, recognised the historic moment prior to the Cell C Sharks contest.
“What an opportunity for us to be one of the first teams to come over here in a knockout stage of this competition,” he said. “You talk about occasions and ‘firsts’ that happen, and it’s a great occasion for the club.”
Vodacom Bulls saw their maiden Heineken Champions Cup journey end in a 33-9 defeat at Stade Toulousain, but director of rugby Jake White felt the game at Le Stadium was further evidence of the competition’s elite standard, likening its aura to an international tournament.
“I loved today (against Stade Toulousain) especially. I love the competition,” the former South Africa head coach said.
“I liked today because it reminded me of the World Cup in France in 2007. It was the same ambiance. I saw the people outside.
“It’s the first time our players have walked through a tunnel, when people clap you coming out of the bus. It’s normal in France, so it was a good experience. It made me feel like in 2007, when we had a police escort.
“It’s a great competition. It’s so tough to win. I’ll use Racing 92 as an example. They have a massive budget, they have an incredible team, yet they can’t seem to win it. This means that even if you’re in it for a long time, you have no privilege to win it.
“You have to earn to win the [Heineken] Champions Cup. I have just spoken to my owner and we need to get international players if we want to win this competition.
“We can develop the young guys and we will keep doing it, but you need to add. Our fans are not happy because we’re not winning. The (Bulls) fans still haven’t understood how the [Heineken] Champions Cup works.
“For example, when we were in Super Rugby, it was easy. We’d play from February and finish in June. It’s still learning for our fans to understand how [Heineken] Champions Cup and [EPCR] Challenge Cup works.
“I know once they see all the big teams playing each other at the end of the competition and experience what happens here, it’s fantastic and once the fans see that, it will be fine.”