By Andrew Baldock, PA Rugby Union Correspondent
South African teams will play in the Heineken Champions Cup for the first time next season.
Tournament organisers European Professional Club Rugby have confirmed that three South African qualifiers from the United Rugby Championship will participate.
They are the Pretoria-based Bulls, the Sharks from Durban and Cape Town-based Stormers.
South Africa’s top teams ✅
World Class Players ✅
3 @URCOfficial quarter finalists ✅ #HeinekenChampionsCup ✅
Welcome to @THESTORMERS, @BlueBullsRugby and @SharksRugby – we are so excited to welcome you to our competition 💪 pic.twitter.com/OAFmRmGz9B
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) June 2, 2022
That trio will be joined by fellow URC Champions Cup representatives Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Edinburgh and Ospreys.
A fourth URC South African side – the Johannesburg-based Lions – will take part in the second-tier European Challenge Cup next term, while the Cheetahs from Bloemfontein have also been invited.
The widely-expected move has been described as “a crucial step forward” by EPCR chairman Dominic McKay.
Next season’s European finals weekend is set for the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on May 19th and 20th.
Rugby union’s European Cup began in 1996, with its roll of honour featuring winners from England, France and Ireland.
But South African teams will add a new dimension, with players like World Cup-winning Springboks captain Siya Kolisi among those set to be involved.
Next season’s European competitions kick off in December, with 24 teams set to play four pool stage rounds either side of Christmas.
McKay said: “We are delighted to confirm that the South African clubs will be part of our expanded tournaments from the beginning of next season.
“The Stormers, Bulls, Sharks and Lions will all bring hugely exciting southern hemisphere rugby, well-known world-class players and broad new audiences into our tournaments.
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) May 28, 2022
“The steps we have taken with our stakeholder leagues and with SARU (South African Rugby Union) ensure that we can further develop the tournaments as the pinnacle of global club rugby.
“This is a crucial step forward in bringing to life our vision of growing the game and our own tournaments, continuing to deliver strong returns for our leagues and creating an ever-higher standard of mouthwatering matches for our fans.”
More than 100,000 spectators watched the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals in Marseille last weekend, and EPCR said that next season’s tournament formats will be announced shortly.
SARU chief executive Jurie Roux added: “We would like to thank all stakeholders who have been involved in the negotiation process – the board and staff of EPCR, the URC, Premiership Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby.
— EPCR Challenge Cup (@ChallengeCup_) June 2, 2022
“Ever since we’ve made the decision to align with the northern hemisphere, our aim was to play in the EPCR competitions.
“As we’ve seen during the inaugural season of the URC, the rugby is of the highest standard and our top players definitely benefited from this move.
“We now have an opportunity to also start rubbing shoulders with the top clubs from England and France in two other competitions that have caught the imagination of rugby supporters around the globe for more than two decades.”