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What the Champions Cup means to South African sides

By Josh Raisey
Marcus Smith of DHL Harlequins kicking through during the Heineken Champions Cup, round of 16 match between DHL Stormers and Harlequins at DHL Stadium on April 01, 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by EJ Langner/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

The idea of welcoming South African clubs into the Investec Champions Cup last season was not one that was universally welcomed, but that objection dissipated as the season progressed.

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Now entering their second season in the competition, the sides seem part of the furniture, albeit only two sides are in the premier competition- the Stormers and the Bulls.

The Champions Cup (in its various iterations) has long held a fabled aura in some corners of Europe, and the fears were originally that its mystique would be diluted by opening its doors far and wide. Stormers lock Ben-Jason Dixon proves otherwise.

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Evan Roos on the advice he got from Eben Etzebeth

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Evan Roos on the advice he got from Eben Etzebeth

The South African speaks just as effusively about the Champions Cup as players and fans would from Munster or Leicester, describing it as a “big privilege” to be playing in arguably the leading club competition in the world.

“You just need one trip to France to realise [how special the Champions Cup is],” the lock said at the launch of this season’s Champions Cup at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last month.

“It’s things that we’d never get the opportunity to do if we weren’t part of this competition. Massive teams- as a kid growing up, you never even thought of the possibility of playing a Saracens or Toulouse. Now it’s like a dream come true, so it’s very special.”

The South African outfits served up some of the best matches of the tournament last season, with Dixon noting the Stormers’ round of 16 clash with Harlequins as one of his standout memories.

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“One of the highlights was out match we played against Harlequins in the round of 16 at home in a packed DHL Stadium,” he said.

“We then flew over the Exeter for the quarter-final and got kicked out of the competition over there.”

Entering the tournament as the reigning United Rugby Champions last season, the Cape Town-based side were South Africa’s main hope of any success. They turned up at Sandy Park to take on the Exeter Chiefs as slight favourites, but had more or less lost the game after half an hour of play, eventually losing 42-17. They were South Africa’s last remaining team in the competition after the Sharks had exited earlier that day as well, but the loss made the challenges that come with playing the Champions Cup became all too apparent, particularly playing away from home.

Dixon discussed the challenges that the South African teams face in the competition, but has the belief that the Stormers and the Bulls can compete this season.

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He said: “I think it’s a different challenge, the Champions Cup. Even in the URC we’ve been struggling to win away from home, but we’re adaptable. So I hope we can keep on learning because there’s a lot of improvement that we need to make. But I think we can compete in the competition.”

The Stormers get their campaign underway with a trip to Welford Road on Sunday to take on two-time champions Leicester Tigers, before hosting reigning champions La Rochelle the week after.

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