Springboks star Handre Pollard believes the South African teams will take the Heineken Champions Cup to “a completely different level”, just as they have done with the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.
Pollard’s former team, the Vodacom Bulls, will join the DHL Stormers and the Cell C Sharks in taking part in Europe’s elite event for the first time this week.
They qualified through finishing in the top eight in the Vodacom URC last season, with the DHL Stormers going on to win the league title, beating the Vodacom Bulls in the final.
Those two sides currently lie third and second respectively in the Vodacom URC table after the opening nine rounds of matches, with the Emirates Lions – who are in the second-tier European Challenge Cup – occupying fifth spot.
World Cup winning fly-half Pollard, who joined English champions Leicester from French champions Montpellier in the summer, is convinced having the South African sides in Europe is a positive step forward.
“I understand completely some people are like ‘What are they doing here?”, said the 28-year-old from the Western Cape.
“But I think, after a year or two, it’ll really benefit the competition. It took the Vodacom URC to a completely different level and I honestly believe they’ll be the same with the Champions Cup.
“The South Africa teams will bring a great new flavour to the competition. They have been playing a really nice, attacking brand of rugby in the URC, while the physicality 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.
“The clubs in South Africa will have to become smarter tactically to compete with the top teams in Europe. It might take them a couple of years to find their feet, because it’s so different, but I think it’ll be great. People will enjoy it.
“The weather is going to play a role. Going to South Africa in January, it’s going to be hot, humid, and tough, and then the next week you come up here in the snow! It’s going to be very interesting to see how the teams can adjust.”
The 65-times capped Pollard says being involved in European Cup competition will be a great experience for players in his homeland.
“Seven, eight years ago, we were saying to ourselves that the Champions Cup is so awesome and we wished we were playing in it,” he said.
“I was saying how I’d like to come to England to play in it and now the boys are playing in it anyway!
“For them to come over and play in the Stade Michelin against Clermont, or go to the Aviva and play Leinster, it will be great to see our young guys in South Africa take that pressure, thrive under it and learn from it. It’ll be a great learning experience. I’m very excited to see what they can do.
“Hopefully some of the South African teams can do well this season, just to get our fans more of a taste for what it is like going into the play-offs. People might be pretty sceptical in the beginning, not understanding quite, but I think they will quickly realise it is massive and they’ll enjoy it. Every game is tough in the Champions Cup, there is no easy game.”
Pollard is currently sidelined, having injured a knee on his Leicester debut against Saracens in early October, but he is looking to return to action in the new year, with his club facing European group opposition from the Ospreys and Clermont Auvergne.