South Africa’s welcome pack to Europe: The teams heading into battle

Dylan Coetzee
Champions Cup_ Split with Kolisi, Libbok and Arendse

Planet Rugby continues the build-up to the dawn of a new era in club rugby that sees the Stormers, Bulls, and Sharks join Europe’s elite in the race for the pinnacle of the game at club level, the Champions Cup.

With the tournament’s structure clearly outlined in the first part of the South Africa’s welcome pack to Europe, the focus shifts to the teams themselves.

The Stormers

Head coach: John Dobson is the tactical mastermind behind arguably the best Stormers side there has ever been. The former hooker is a Western Cape man through and through, boasting a proud record as a player and a coach. Also known as Dobbo, he is a man of many talents, including creative writing, as the author of several published books.

Captain: Steven Kitshoff needs little introduction to the rugby fraternity as fans have seen the bright red-haired front-row terrorising opponents at scrum time and with the ball in hand since bursting onto the scene in 2011. The veteran is in his second stint at the Stormers after some time in France that will be valuable in the Cape Town side’s campaign.

Stadium: The Stormers call the DHL Stadium in Cape Town home after making the move from their historic ground in Newlands amidst financial struggles within the union. As expected, the move was met with some resistance from fans and former players, but the team has begun to settle into their new home. The ground itself was built for the 2010 Fifa World Cup with a 55,000 capacity.

Key players: There are a host of key players in Cape Town, some of which have recently been capped at Test level for the first time in 2022. Playmaker Manie Libbok is in the form of his life, cutting defences open at will in the United Rugby Championship, whilst his right-hand man Damian Willemse has had a stellar season for the Springboks, and his stocks continue to rise. In the pack, veteran Frans Malherbe is arguably the best tighthead prop in the world and loose forwards Evan Roos, and Hacjivah Dayimani have been known to be a real handful with the ball in hand.

Form: The Cape Town men have made a strong start to the season, sitting in third place in the URC with six wins, one draw and one loss from their eight games so far.

Last season’s performance: Dobson and his men created history last season by becoming the first Stormers team to claim a major title as they went on to win the inaugural URC against the odds in what was an inspiring campaign.

Past accolades: The Stormers reached one Super Rugby final in 2010 but fell short at the last hurdle. Outside of last season’s success, the Cape side has only playoff knockouts to show.

The Bulls

Head coach: The experienced and wily Jake White is both the director of rugby and head coach of the Bulls. The tactician has an incredible CV, including guiding South Africa to a World Cup win in 2007. The 58-year-old has experience in European rugby with Montpellier, where he won the Challenge Cup in 2016 but struggled to make an impression in the Champions Cup. This experience will be a great asset for the Bulls.

Captain: Young lock Ruan Nortje is the Bulls skipper, and his leadership style is based on leading by example, as he does tirelessly every week. The star deservedly earned his first Test cap this year and looks one for the future. The 24-year-old has several veterans to lean on in the team’s leadership group.

Stadium: The historic Loftus Versfeld is the home of the Bulls and is a stadium that has seen some brilliant rugby over the years. Often referred to as ‘Fortress Loftus’, the Pretoria men pride themselves in performing at home for their boisterous fanbase. The stadium was built in 1906 and has been renovated several times, seating 51,000.

Key players: The squad depth at the Bulls is outrageous, with skipper Nortje leading the charge alongside the robust duo of Elrich Louw and Marco van Staden in the forward pack. While in the backline, the venomous pair of Kurt-Lee Arendse and Canan Moodie have the quality to split most defences.

Form: The side sits second in the URC with seven wins and two losses from their opening nine matches.

Last season’s performance: White’s men fell short to the Stormers in an all-South African final after a brilliant campaign that was headlined by their stunning win over Leinster in the semifinals in Dublin.

Past accolades: The Bulls are South Africa’s most successful team, with Super Rugby titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010.

The Sharks

Head coach: Director rugby and former Blitzboks coach Neil Powell recently took over the hot seat at the Durban outfit after Sean Everitt stepped down from the role last week. It is a transition period for the Sharks and will test the tactician’s nous in the 15s game.

Captain: Front-row Thomas du Toit is the leader of the side in the absence of Lukhanyo Am and is a player who has an excellent understanding of the game. The Springbok is a fairly complete leader who sets an example, manages the team well and relies on the leadership group around him that is filled with experience in Siya Kolisi and Eben Etzebeth.

Stadium: Kings Park stadium is home of the Sharks and is one of the older stadiums in the country, having been opened in 1958. The ground is typified by its high-rise stands that have seen some sensational rugby at club and Test level, seating 54,000.

Key players: The Sharks arguably have the strongest squad in the country, which contributed to the downfall of Everitt as the former coach was under pressure to produce results. The side’s first-choice front-row are all Springboks, with Bongi Mbonambi and Ox Nche alongside skipper du Toit. South African captain Kolisi and Test centurion Etzebeth are certainly players to watch in the pack. The backline has no shortage of Springboks either, with scrum-half Jaden Hendrikse, Makazole Mapimpi and Am, to name a few.

Form: It has been a relatively slow season thus far for the Sharks, given the quality at their disposal, and the side sits 10th on the URC table with four wins from their seven games.

Last season’s performance: The Durban side bowed out in the quarterfinals of the URC against the Bulls as Chris Smith stole the game in the final moments causing heartbreak for the Sharks.

Past accolades: The Sharks have fallen short at the final hurdle on several occasions in Super Rugby, finishing runners-up in 1996, 2001, 2007 and 2012 but have yet to win a major tournament.

READ MORE: South Africa’s welcome pack to Europe: Understanding the Champions Cup