CAPE TOWN, Dec 8 (Reuters) - History will be made this weekend when South African clubs enter European Rugby’s Champions Cup for the first time, another sign of the country’s push into more lucrative markets and the increasing shift away from the global south.
The Durban-based Sharks will make South Africa’s bow when they host English side Harlequins on Saturday afternoon and in the evening the Bulls from Pretoria welcome French club Lyon. Cape Town’s Stormers visit another French side, Clermont.
It is not South African Rugby’s first foray into the European market - their elite teams are participating in a second season of the United Rugby Championship (URC) that includes clubs from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy - but this will be a step up in opposition and media glare.
"It has happened earlier than planned, but this has now become reality, which really is great news," SA Rugby CEO Jurie Roux said.
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"I firmly believe we are on the right track by playing in the Northern Hemisphere, and we certainly can't wait to get involved in the (European) competitions as it will only further enhance the local game."
The Stormers won the URC last season in an all-South African final against the Bulls, whose coach Jake White is under no illusions as to the task the trio face in the Champions Cup.
"We'll be coming up against teams packed with internationals. European teams don't just draw from the player pool of their country – they have stars from all the top rugby nations," said White, who won the World Cup with South Africa in 2007.
"I fear South Africans are a little naive about what lies ahead. Champions Cup teams are much stronger than those in the URC. They boast packs that weigh more than a thousand kilograms, they have brilliant backs. I think we are in for a bit of a wake-up call from this weekend."
Conversely, visiting sides will have to endure 30 degree Celsius summer heat at altitude when they travel to the Bulls. Though it works both ways.
"You play on a bone-hard pitch in 30 degrees heat one weekend and experience biting cold, fierce wind and torrential rain seven days later," Bulls flyhalf Chris Smith said.
South Africa’s Johannesburg-based Lions and the Cheetahs from Bloemfontein will play in the secondary European Rugby Challenge Cup competition that also kicks off this weekend.
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