The extent of the challenge that awaits them in this coming season’s edition of the Heineken Champions Cup was confirmed for the DHL Stormers on Thursday when the fixtures were announced.
John Dobson’s men already knew they were in the so-called group of death, which includes both of last year’s finalists, French club La Rochelle, who won the competition, and the beaten finalists, Leinster.
Of course as they are in the same league competition, the Vodacom United Rugby Championship, as Leinster, the Stormers won’t play the Dublin-based team in the group stages.
But they will face La Rochelle, and coach Dobson might not have known whether to laugh or cry when it was confirmed that the tournament champions will be making their first ever visit to Cape Town on Saturday, 16 December.
The DHL Stormers will take on Stade Rochelais and the Sale Sharks at DHL Stadium in the Heineken Champions Cup.
See the pool fixtures here: https://t.co/HepzjGoUPu#iamastormer #DHLDelivers pic.twitter.com/4OhPPorwWy— DHL Stormers (@THESTORMERS) July 13, 2023
The reason to laugh would be because playing La Rochelle at home is huge and should draw a massive crowd for what should be a seismic rugby occasion at the start of the festive season in South Africa.
The reason to cry would be because home victories are crucially important if you want to advance to the round of 16, and that might be a lot less easy for the Stormers to achieve than if they had hosted one of the other teams.
An away trip to La Rochelle might have been seen as a game the Stormers could almost accept they would lose, but now they are going to have to fight tooth and nail against the champions or they will suffer a home defeat that will seriously dent their chances of advancing.
To make it even more difficult for the Stormers, their clash with La Rochelle comes just six days after they open their 2023/2024 campaign against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road in England.
Yup, they have a Sunday game to start with, then just six days to get back to South Africa to be ready to take on the champions. A tough ask indeed, as if it wasn’t already.
The Stormers’ other home fixture in the group phase is against the English club, Sale Sharks, on 13 January, which should also be a big draw for Cape fans and an appetising match up.
Again though, Sale will be tough opponents. The Stormers players can’t complain that the competition doesn’t offer interesting opponents as well as away venues to play at, for they conclude the group phase against Stade Francais in Paris on 20 January.
BULLS-SARACENS CLASH A PLUM FIXTURE
The Bulls, who are the only other South African team in the elite European competition next season because of the Cell C Sharks’ failure to qualify, also face a tough schedule, but not quite as tough as the one their arch-rivals from Cape Town face.
For the Bulls the plum fixture will be the showdown at Loftus with the English champions, Saracens, in the first weekend of competition.
They play that game on 9 December before retracing their steps from last season by heading to Lyon a week later.
They are away to Bristol Bears on 13 January before finishing off against Bordeaux-Begles, who lost twice to the Sharks last year, in Pretoria on 20 January.
Three South African teams will compete in the secondary European competition, the EPCR Challenge Cup - the Sharks, Emirates Lions and invitees, the Toyota Cheetahs.
That competition will be played during the same time windows as the Champions Cup.
The finals weekend this season is set for the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on the weekend of 24/25 May 2024, with the Challenge Cup final being played on the Friday night and the Champions Cup decider being played on the Saturday.
The excitement is palpable ??
?? 2023/24 CHAMPIONS CUP FIXTURES ??
Check out the full list of pool matches ?? https://t.co/LqfD5lftNo pic.twitter.com/lwjH9lwS34— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) July 13, 2023
VODACOM BULLS CHAMPIONS CUP FIXTURES
Saracens (home), Saturday 9 December 2023
Lyon (away), Saturday 16 December 2023
Bristol Bears (away), Saturday 13 January 2024
Bordeaux-Begles (home), Saturday 20 January 2021
DHL STORMERS CHAMPIONS CUP FIXTURES
Leicester Tigers (away), Sunday 10 December 2023
La Rochelle (home), Saturday 16 December 2023
Sale Sharks (home), Saturday 13 January 2024
Stade Francais (away), Saturday 20 January 2024
ROUND OF 16 - weekend of 5/6/7 April
Quarterfinals - weekend of 12/13/14 April
Semifinals - 3/4/5 May
Champions Cup final - 25 May, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London
Challenge Cup final - 24 May, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London