Now or never for SA teams in Champions Cup and Challenge Cup

Daniel du Plessis of the DHL Stormers is challenged by Marcus Smith of the Harlequins when laying the Heineken Championship Cup at the DHL Cape Town Stadium

File. It’s do or die for the five South African franchises this weekend as they take the field in the Round of 16 of the Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup. Seen here: Daniel du Plessis of the DHL Stormers is challenged by Marcus Smith of the Harlequins. Picture: Phando Jikelo/Independent Media

Published Apr 4, 2024


It’s do or die for the five South African franchises this weekend as they take the field in the Round of 16 of the Champions Cup and EPCR Challenge Cup, where they will all be battling it out for quarter-final places.

Three of the teams will have the luxury of home ground advantage, with the Bulls hosting Lyon in Pretoria and the Stormers welcoming defending champions Stade Rochelais to Cape Town in the Champions Cup on Saturday, while the Sharks will meet Zebre Parma in the Challenge Cup in Durban on Sunday.

In the other two EPCR playoffs, which will both take place on Saturday, the Cheetahs meet Clermont Auvergne in France, and the Lions take on Benetton in Italy.

While the Stormers, Sharks and Lions will enter their knock-out matches well aware of what it takes to advance to the quarter-final after featuring in the top eight last season, the disappointment of losing out last year is expected to be a big driving force for the Bulls and Cheetahs.

Confident Bulls

The Bulls will enter their match against Lyon with confidence as they remain unbeaten at home this season in both the Champions Cup and United Rugby Championship, while they will also draw inspiration from the fact that they finished the pool stages ranked second after winning three of their four pool matches, one spot in front of their French rivals, who were third on the table.

Adding to this, the Pretoria outfit have had a strong URC season, winning nine of their 13 matches, while Lyon have battled to make their presence felt in the French Top 14, where they are currently ranked third-last on the log after nine victories in 20 matches so far this season.

The Stormers find themselves in a similar situation to the Bulls, with the team also holding a 100% home win record this season, while they also boast three wins in the competition to Stade Rochelais’ two.

While the Capetonians will be wary of the fact that they will be facing the two-time defending champions, they will have the extra motivation of knowing that they beat the French outfit in the pool stages.

In the EPCR Challenge Cup, the Sharks will have their sights set on a third win in a row in the competition and their third victory at home in as many weeks after bagging two morale boosting URC wins and will look to continue this winning form when they host Zebre Parma on Sunday.

The Durbanites will also enter the match with a mental boost after finishing the league stages of the EPCR Challenge Cup as the top ranked side in their pool – three positions above Zebre Parma who finished in fourth place, and with a seven-point lead after securing bonus points for tries in all their matches, and a losing bonus point in their only defeat of the competition, against the Toyota Cheetahs.

However, the Sharks can’t afford to write off Zebre Parma, who won two of their four pool matches. Both teams have struggled to make their presence felt in the URC, with the KwaZulu-Natalians winning three matches and the Italians only one in 13 outings, but that was against their opponents on Sunday in the fourth round in November.

Clermont Auvergne, meanwhile, will try to make the most of their home ground advantage when they host the Cheetahs at Stade Marcel-Michelin as they go in search of their third successive win in the competition.

Cheetahs no pushover

The French club will have noticed that the Free Staters toppled the Sharks and registered a convincing 33-15 victory against Zebre Parma in Italy in the pool stages. Adding to this, they also won their first two SA Cup matches in the last two weeks by big margins.

With Clermont currently ranked fourth last on the Top 14 log, where they have won only eight of their 20 matches so far this season, and both teams entering the match with the mindset that they will have nothing to lose, it should be an entertaining encounter.

The Lions will look to secure back-to-back EPCR Challenge Cup quarter-final spots when they line up against Benetton in Treviso on Saturday, but they will have to dig deep in what will mark their third away game in a row after being on the road in their last two URC games.

This will be the second time the teams meet at Stadio Monigo this season after crossing paths in the URC, where the Joburgers went down 15-10 – a defeat they will want to avenge on Saturday.

The Lions can expect a massive challenge from Benetton, who are currently in sixth place on the URC log and who come off an encouraging home win against Connacht, but they will also be wary of the fact that they suffered only one more defeat in the EPCR Challenge Cup than Benetton, which should spice up the clash.