The Heineken Champions Cup (formerly known as the Heineken Cup) has for decades provided a unique opportunity for the best clubs throughout Europe and the UK to compete across competitions. The tournament has seen some of the most dramatic and scintillating games of rugby ever played.
The Champions League of rugby has always been something we used to watch and slightly envy from this side of the world. Now, starting on Saturday, we get to rub shoulders with some of the giants of international club rugby.
The Challenge Cup is arguably one of the hardest tournaments to win in the world at the moment. 24 clubs from 3 leagues get divided into 4 tiers based on their performance in their respective leagues from the previous year. Teams are then drawn into pools, ensuring that clubs from the same league cannot play against one another.
After 4 pool games, (2 home and 2 away) the top 8 teams in each pool progress to the round of 16. Followed by quarters, semis and the big final which happens at a neutral venue. This year the final will be played at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday the 20th of May.
Sharks v Harlequins
The Sharks will host the 2-time Premiership title winners at Kings Park. The high-flying team boasts an All Star squad with some vintage international experience in Danny Care and Joe Marler. Together with the likes of Alex Dombrant, Caden Murley and Joe Marchant, they are arguably one of the Premiership's most exciting teams with ball in hand.
All the headlines though will fall on Andre Esterhuizen. The former Sharks regular is a giant for the Quins and will need to be influential for the visitors, to find their attacking groove.
The Sharks find themselves in a bit of a cycle at the moment, showing some worrying signs when their Springboks are away on national duty and then seemingly finding the ability to gel when it counts when the big names are in town.
They need to keep a lid on Andre Esterhuizen, who in my opinion is the key to unlocking the Quins attack by providing rapid speed of ball and audacious offloads.
I expect the Sharks to have too much power at the set piece, and with Marcus Smith missing with injury, I think the Quins might struggle to get going in Durban.
ASM Clermont v The Stormers
The Stormers face a daunting trip to the famous Stade Marcel-Michelin. To this day I have not played in a louder stadium. Painted bright yellow and built at an unearthly upward trajectory, ASM once went on a 77-game unbeaten streak at their beloved stadium.
They haven’t quite been the dominant force of late, they currently lie 10th in the Top 14, but like most French teams, they tend to come alive in the Champions Cup where Clermont has been the runners-up on three occasions.
The Stormers haven’t slowed down one bit after last season's URC heroics and they have a great opportunity to make a statement on Saturday. Can they bring the same energy and speed to their game away from home in a hostile environment, that’s the question.
Manie Libbok, who seems to have come away from the Autumn Internationals full of confidence will be key in managing the energy and emotion of the game. If he is making good decisions, the Stormers have a real chance to do what a lot of teams have failed to do over the years and beat Clermont at home.
The Bulls v Lyon
Last year's Challenge Cup Champions will make the step up to the big league this year with a spicy fixture against the Vodacom Bulls at Loftus. Lyon doesn’t quite have the biggest names in world rugby on their books, but they have a great balance of honest, hard-working players mixed with a bit of stardust.
South Africans will remember Lima Sopoaga being a handful at the Highlanders in the days of Super Rugby, but it's up front where the likes of French international lock Romain Taofifenua will lead the charge in their first game at Loftus.
Bulls coach Jake White will know all about Lyon, having spent a few years coaching at Montpellier. His team seem to have hit their straps recently, coming off the back of two strong performances in the URC.
Johan Goosen, who is also very familiar with the French way after stints at Racing 92 and Montpellier, is looking like his old self again and will be influential in unlocking a Bulls attack full of youth and speed. Lyon has only won 1 in 6 of their last games away from home, so I expect it will be more of the same for them. If dealing with the thin air isn’t enough, Canan Moodie and Kurt-Lee Arendse in full flight should be enough to get the Bulls off to a winning start.
I expect the level of rugby will be very different to what we see on a weekly basis in the URC. All teams will have their full strength lineups with no internationals on the horizon. This is the trophy they all want to win desperately and it's going to be brilliant to see how our South African teams compete on the big stage. The best part about the Champions Cup? We do it all again next week!
Nic Groom is a former South African Rugby Union player. He played scrum-half for the Cape Town based Western Province and the Stormers, representing the Cape side over 126 times. His time in Cape Town saw him win 2 Currie Cups and a Vodacom Cup and in 2015 he was selected for the Springbok incoming tour squad vs Ireland. He later signed for English Premiership side Northampton Saints and played 50 games for the East Midlands Club. After a thrilling 11 year career, which saw him represent the Barbarians, South Africa 'A', the Lions and Edinburgh Rugby, he finished playing at London Irish. Nic has played 229 professional rugby games.