Johannesburg – If captain Reinhard Nothnagel is to be believed, then the Lions can’t wait to get stuck into the Challenge Cup, starting this weekend.
It will be the Joburgers, along with the Cheetahs, first participation in the second tier European club rugby championship, marking a red letter day for SA Rugby by large.
While the Lions and Cheetahs compete in the lower division, the Bulls, Sharks and Stormers will play in the prestigious and lucrative Champions Cup, also this weekend.
“It’s a big competition for all the SA sides – there will be some French teams, and some English that we will be playing,” Nothnagel explained.
“We are definitely looking forward to the competition and as South Africans we always enjoy something new. I am looking forward to going to new places and making some new memories with the boys.
“There is a lot of excitement within the group and we want to perform in this competition.”
The Lions and Cheetahs will both play in Pool B of the tournament, which consists of eight teams after the withdrawal of English sides Worcester Warriors and Wasps. They will play two teams each on a home and away basis.
For the Lions that means two home games against the Dragons (kick-off 12.35pm) this weekend, and then Stade Francais a week later, both at Ellis Park. They will then travel to France and Wales in mid-January for the return fixtures.
The invited Cheetahs, meanwhile, play French club Section Paloise, better known as Pau, away on Saturday (kick-off 2pm), and then face Scarlets at Free State Stadium a week later. Their return fixture against the Welsh franchise will be next year mid-January away, before finishing up against Pau.
The other teams in Pool B are French club Aviron Bayonnais and Benetton of Italy.
After theses fixtures, the top six teams from each pool (12 in all) will progress to the Round of 16, scheduled for the end of March and beginning of April, alongside the ninth and 10th-ranked teams from each of the Champions Cup pools (four teams in all) to compete in the first knockout round.
The Round of 16 fixtures will be decided by the pool standings, with the two top teams playing cross pool against the fifth and sixth-ranked teams, while the third and fourth-placed teams in the Challenge Cup will play against one of the Champions Cup teams, respectively.
All the playoff rounds are one-off matches, with the four highest-ranked teams earning home advantage. The final will be played at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on May 19.