2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup Preview

Last season Stade Rochelais won the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time

Friday will see the Heineken Champions Cup return and, more than ever before, the competition is going to offer even more high-quality and enthralling rugby season for the rest of the 2022/23 season.

This season sees the competition expanded thanks to the introduction of South African teams to the competition, meaning that it is no longer a European competition, but cross-continental.

They will compete with teams from England, France, Wales, Scotland and Ireland for the opportunity to lift silverware next May in Dublin.

To begin, 24 teams have been placed into two pools of 12 and after playing two of their group both home and away, the top eight will progress to the round of 16. Teams finishing between ninth and 11th will drop into the Challenge Cup, while the 12th place side are dropped altogether.

South African teams in the mix

It was confirmed at the start of June that South African teams would be joining EPCR competitions. Having joined the United Rugby Championship just a year before, it was the DHL Stormers who ended that inaugural campaign as champions, the runners-up? The Vodacom Bulls.

Those two teams are joined by the Cell C Sharks in the Champions Cup, the inclusion of these teams creating plenty of intrigue. There was plenty of furore about the inclusion of the southern hemisphere, but like it or not it is happening.

“I understand completely some people are like ‘why are they doing here?’,” Leicester Tigers and South Africa fly-half Handre Pollard said. “But I think after a year or two it’ll really benefit the competition.

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“It took the URC to a completely different level, and I honestly believe they’ll be the same in the Champions Cup. It might take them a couple of years to find their feet, because it’s so different, but it is the physicality where there is the difference between the top four or five teams in the Champions Cup.

“It’s bred into us, so that part of the game is pretty set. We’ll tactically have to become smarter as clubs in South Africa to compete with the top teams in Europe. I think it’ll be great. People will enjoy it, but it’ll take time.”

On Saturday, Harlequins captain Stephan Lewies will come toe-to-toe with his former employers. Playing the Sharks in Durban, the lock forward has fond memories of playing on the east cape, the 30-year-old having left the team in 2018 and then making his way to London.

Having watched on as South African teams have left Super Rugby before joining the URC and now being in the Champions Cup, the 30-year-old only sees positives to rugby in his country with top stars now likely to be drawn back to their country of birth.

“The Sharks have great, new American investors there, so their facilities are growing, they have some of the South African stars like Eben [Etzebeth] who was playing overseas and is going back, so it is good for rugby back home,” Lewies said.

“Players are returning back, and it is Springboks returning back home, so it is good for the game back home. Then for them, I think for a player going back knowing you are still going to play in the best club competition in the world just makes it so much easier for people to go back and play in South Africa rather than playing abroad.”

To top it all, the team’s that have to make their way to South Africa will be greeted by summer. December in Europe is typically recognised by frosty mornings and low temperatures, team’s set to be challenged by the conditions from the off.

“It’s quite hot,” Bulls wing Kurt-Lee Arendse smirked. “With the altitude and stuff, we have a bit of an advantage, but if teams come prepared well, then they might give us a go. It is going to be a good competition and we are really looking forward to it.”

Premiership involvement

It was in 2020 that the last Gallagher Premiership team picked up a Champions Cup crown. That was in the midst of Covid-19, Exeter Chiefs beating Racing 92 in Bristol to pick up their first piece of European Silverware and in 2019 Saracens were winners.

Shortly after Saracens were relegated for financial misdoings and upon their promotion competed in the Challenge Cup. Finishing last season as Premiership runners-up, Mark McCall’s side are now well in the mix to contend in this competition once again, their opponents Edinburgh and Lyon in Pool A.

Rob Baxter’s Exeter are also in that group, their opponents this weekend being Castres Olympique and next weekend the Bulls will come to Sandy Park. Gloucester start their campaign this weekend at Kingsholm with Bordeaux Begles coming to visit before a trip to Dublin and Leinster at the RDS Arena.

Along with the Sharks, Harlequins have Racing 92 as opponents, while Northampton Saints start off with a visit to current champions Stade Rochelle before hosting Munster a weekend later at Cinch Stadium at Franklin’s Gardens.

Sale Sharks have drawn ties against Ulster and Stade Toulousain, while Premiership winners Leicester Tigers will play the sole representatives in Ospreys and French side ASM Clermont Auvergne.

Kicking off the tournament on Friday night are London Irish and Montpellier. Playing at the Gtech Community Stadium in London, it is Irish’s first time in this competition for the first time in a decade.

Finishing eighth in the Premiership last season, their return to the Champions Cup will certainly be a baptism of fire. Montpellier are the current Top 14 winners, and their other opponents are the URC champions, the Stormers.

Heading to Cape Town following their Friday night lights encounter with Montpellier, it is a challenge that the team’s captain is relishing.

“We were actually buzzing when we got those draws,” Rogerson said. “Because they are impressive teams in terms of what they have achieved over the last couple of years, equally their squad, the players and the international quality that they have.

“I think a draw like that is almost a dream for us. We are clearly going to go into those games as the underdog, but we probably like that. 

“People won’t be expecting much from us, but we know the talent and the quality we have in the group, and potentially we can cause some shock and some upsets in that competition.

“The bigger these games are or the bigger these teams are that come to us or we travel to them, the more it attracts attention because we are playing top teams and top names in Europe and South Africa.

“It is going to be pretty incredible, a brilliant experience for the squad, and it is just reward for a really productive season last year. Now we have to go and make the most of it.”

Picking favourites

Picking out favourites for the Champions Cup is always a hard to pick out contenders. But, even having said that it makes sense to start with the current champions, Stade Rochelais. 

Recently securing the services of Ronan O’Gara until 2027 and ending speculation about the Irishman leaving France, the side stunned the rugby world to beat Leinster in Marseille in May.

Having a strong start to their domestic season, the club are fourth heading into this new competition and a little further up the top tier of French rugby is where other contenders lie. Stade Toulousain won the Champions Cup in 2021 and Racing 92 are always dangerous but have largely flattered to deceive.

In the URC, the current leaders are Leinster. Playing nine games so far this campaign, Leo Cullen’s team have won each of those games and will be hoping to bring that faultless form to a competition that the province has won on four occasions.

Leinster and Ireland back-row Will Connors watched on as all those titles were lifted. Having not won the competition since 2018, the 26-year-old is hopeful to add further prestige to the Leinster jersey. 

“I think a lot of players in Leinster have grown up seeing these stars added to the jersey,” Connors said. “A lot of us may have not been directly tied to that period of the Champions Cup going through the years.

“We have seen it growing up, we have been supporting Leinster and now to be part of that culture and that environment, the motivation there for everyone is to etch their own team’s legacy onto the jersey because for us, like every team, you are proud to be from your own club, from where you were born, from where you were brought up.

“Our team right now, if we could put our own legacy, put another star on this jersey, you see that the whole way through you and you are saying to your grandkids ‘I was part of that star there’ and it is a special moment for anyone.”

John Dobson’s Stormers side can be looked at as potential champions. Winners of the URC earlier in the year and have a favourable draw with London Irish and Clermont as their opposition.

Much of the same can be said for Jake White’s Bulls who were runners-up in the inaugural URC and open up their account on Saturday against Lyon at Loftus Versfeld. Both of the South African sides are capable of causing upsets, although it there will be an adjustment to playing in a new competition.

In terms of English contenders, there are only two serious contenders on the face of it. They come in the form of the two Premiership finalists last season: Leicester Tigers and Saracens.

Tigers’ fortunes could largely be dictated by their head coach’s future. Steve Borthwick is largely thought to be taking on the vacant England head coaching position and his departure from Mattioli Woods Welford Road could leave a significant hole for the club to fill.

Having taken the Premiership by storm upon their return, Saracens may well be hoping to win the Champions Cup for a fourth time. With quality throughout their ranks, it would not be a surprise at all should Mark McCall’s men play in the final come May.


European Rugby Champions Cup Points Table