Johannesburg — The Emirates Lions have a huge task ahead of them when they enter the EPCR Challenge Cup next season after being drawn against the illustrious Stade Francais in the pool stages of that tournament.
The Lions — along with the invited Free State Cheetahs — will compete in the tournament from December onwards, having qualified through this past season’s United Rugby Championship. Although the Challenge Cup is the second tier competition, the Lions will have the tough assignment to overcome one of world rugby’s greatest clubs in SF Francais, while also battling against a highly dangerous and competitive Worcester Warriors in the pool stages.
“We are really excited to be a part of the Challenge Cup,” said head coach Ivan van Rooyen after the draw on Tuesday. “It is a great opportunity, not only for players, coaches and management but also for the fans to get really deep into European rugby culture.”
Switching to their opponents, Van Rooyen righly gushed over both SF Paris and the Warriors, and it is easy to understand why.
SF Paris have won their domestic league on 14 occasions — their last in 2015 - while also winning two Heineken Cups; and one Challenge Cup as recently as 2017. They nonetheless had a disappointing season this year, finishing 11th in the Top 14.
“SF Paris, we know their rich history,” Van Rooyen said.
“They have a couple of South Africans as well. Coach Riccardo Laubscher has coached there and stayed there, so that is awesome. They are one of the original powerhouses in French rugby.”
The Warriors, meanwhile, also finished 11th in the Gallagher English Premiership and will present a different undertaking completely.
Said Van Rooyen: “Then the Warriors are a team with great character.
“Alan Solomons is director of rugby … (South African born Scottish international) Duane van der Merwe is there; (former Cheetahs player) Francious Venter is also there, so we are going to play against a bit of South African flavour ...
“We are going to be playing against good, tough sides full of international players and against different playing styles, different coaching styles. It is a privilege to be playing in the top European competitions,” Van Rooyen added.
Elsewhere, the Cheetahs were drawn against Welsh franchise Scarlets and Top 14 club Pau. Both the Lions and Cheetahs were drawn into Pool B of the Challenge Cup and the first round fixtures will kick-off on the weekend of December 9, with venues and times to be confirmed.
The Lions and Cheetahs will face SF Paris and Warriors, and Scarlets and Pau on a home and away basis.