Five South African teams will be included in next season’s European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions as the country’s growing rugby links with the northern hemisphere were further strengthened.
The Stormers, Sharks and Bulls, who all finished in the top eight of this season’s United Rugby Championship (URC), will play in the Champions Cup, while the Lions and Cheetahs will contest the Challenge Cup, the South African Rugby Union said on Thursday.
South African teams already compete in the URC, previously known as the PRO14, against sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales and the new involvement now pits them against English and French opposition too.
There has also been speculation about world champions South Africa becoming part of a competition involving the Six Nations sides, with the Springboks reportedly keen to re-align with northern hemisphere rugby.
“Our five franchise teams will now play in two new territories against opponents we’ve never played before,” SA Rugby Chief Executive Officer Jurie Roux said in a statement
“It has happened earlier than planned, as we started this process more than two years ago after Super Rugby imploded, but this has now become reality, which really is great news for South African rugby.”
South African clubs withdrew from Super Rugby, where they played against teams from Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, in September 2020.
Roux said the switch to European competition had been a real step up in quality.
“As we’ve seen during the inaugural season of the URC, the rugby is of the highest standard and our top players definitely benefited from this move,” he added.
The Springboks will continue to play in the Rugby Championship against New Zealand, Australia and Argentina until at least 2025.
While there was no mention in Thursday’s statement of South Africa becoming part of a competition involving the Six Nations sides an eventual split from SANZAAR, the body controlling southern hemisphere rugby, now looks increasingly likely.
“I firmly believe we are on the right track by playing in these competitions in the northern hemisphere,” Roux said.