Much like their entrance into the United Rugby Championship (URC), the South African teams’ first foray into the Champions and Challenge Cup was met with much skepticism and complaints from a number of French and English sides.
Wanting to know what worth the SA team’s would bring to Europe’s premier club rugby competition and worried about the travel logistics, it was more unfair doubt placed on the Stormers, Sharks, Bulls, Lions and invitational Cheetahs before they had even played a game.
But two months into the competition and with the pool stages done and dusted, all five South African teams have qualified for the knockouts, while also hosting some fantastically supported ties in the country.
They have thus once again proved they belong in a major European competition, and will add a lot of value to it in the future.
Just as New Zealand seems to be suffering from the lack of playing South African sides in Super Rugby, the European teams are now benefiting from facing top quality SA opposition, and it should in turn help their international teams as well.
With the last 16 of both competitions looming at the end of March and start of April, a few SA teams should continue on into the quarterfinals.
In the Champions Cup the Stormers will be hot favourites to beat Harlequins in their knockout clash in Cape Town, while the Sharks should also have no trouble beating Munster in Durban.
The last SA side with a home tie, the Lions, however face a tricky Challenge Cup encounter against French powerhouse Racing 92 in their clash at Ellis Park.
Playing at altitude will be a big advantage for the Lions, but the match could be decided by how serious Racing take the competition, as they might prioritise the French Top 14 and send a weakened team to take part.
The Bulls face an incredibly tough away game against Toulouse in France, and although they won’t be favourites, they will certainly know they can upset the big teams away after they beat Leinster in the URC semifinals last season.
The Cheetahs also face a huge game in France, taking on Toulon, and although their European journey will probably come to an end in the last 16, if they have a full strength squad featuring Frans Steyn and Ruan Pienaar anything can happen.