Three South African sides will make historic first appearances in the 2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup, according to European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), the governing body and organiser of the two major European rugby union club tournaments.
The DHL Stormers, Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks are among 24 elite clubs which will compete in European rugby’s expanded top-tier tournament. The teams will comprise of eight sides each from the United Rugby Championship (URC), Gallagher Premiership (England) and the TOP 14 (France).
The South African sides qualified for the competition by virtue of finishing in the top eight of the URC following impressive campaigns. The Stormers and Bulls will also contest the final of the URC on June 18 in Cape Town.
The 24 teams will be divided into two pools of 12 with the eight-highest teams from each pool qualifying for the knockout stages which will culminate in the final on May 20 2023, at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland.
The teams will be separated into four tiers based on their rankings, and teams from the same league in the same tier will not be drawn into the same pool.
Meanwhile, the Johannesburg-based Emirates Lions who will also make a historic first appearance in an EPCR competition when they take part in the 20-team EPCR Challenge Cup as one of eight representatives from the URC.
Another South African side, the Toyota Cheetahs from Bloemfontein, will also participate in the tournament having accepted an invitation to compete. There will also be six teams from the TOP 14 and five from the Premiership.
The clubs will be divided into two pools of 10 with the six highest-ranked clubs from each pool, as well as the 9th and 10th ranked clubs from each of the Heineken Champions Cup pools, advancing to the knockout stages. Like the Champions Cup, the final will be played at the Aviva Stadium on May 19 2023.
The number 1 and number 2 ranked clubs from each league will be in Tier 1, the number 3 and number 4 ranked clubs from each league, as well as the number 5 and number 6 ranked clubs from the URC, will be in Tier 2. The Cheetahs will be in tier 3 alongside the Dragons (Wales), Zebre Parma (Italy), Aviron Bayonnais, USAP (both France) and Bath Rugby (England).
The Tier 1 and the Tier 3 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league, will play one another home and away over four pool stage rounds.
The Tier 2 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not from the same league, will play one another home and away during the pool stage. Tier 2 clubs from the TOP 14 can only play against opposition from the URC, and similarly, Tier 2 clubs from the Premiership can also only play against opposition from the URC.
Both the Champions and Challenge Cups will get underway in December and will be played over eight weekends until May.
(Story compiled with assistance from wire reports)