A long and illustrious list of South African players has lifted the European Champions Cup, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
Three players are in the running to join an elite group of South Africans who’ve won the crown jewel of European club rugby in Saturday’s final between Leinster and La Rochelle in Marseille (see who they are in the feature below).
Ahead of the epic encounter at the Stade Vélodrome, let’s look back at the South African imports who’ve hoisted the cherished cup over the years…
Glenn Gelderbloom (Leicester Tigers) – 2001 and 2002
A centre who famously captained the Border Bulldogs to victory over Wales in 1998, Gelderbloom won back-to-back titles with Leicester. He came off the bench in the dying minutes on both occasions, first in Paris, where the Tigers triumphed 34-30 over Stade Francais in 2001 and then in Cardiff, where they edged Munster 15-9.
Daan Human (Toulouse) – 2005 and 2010
A powerhouse prop who won four caps for the Springboks in 2002 and went on to become their scrum coach 18 years later, Human put the squeeze on opponents at the Stormers before being snapped up by Toulouse in 2005. He featured off the bench against Stade Francais in the 18-12 extra-time thriller at Murrayfield in 2005 as well as in the 21-19 win over Biarritz at the Stade de France in 2010.
Trevor Halstead (Munster) – 2006
Halstead took centre stage when Munster finally won the big one in 2006. It was third time’s the charm for the Irish club after they’d lost out to the Northampton Saints in 2000 and the Leicester Tigers in 2002. Having made the move from the Sharks, the former Springbok midfielder helped Munster get over the hump as he powered over for their opening try, which inspired them to a 23-19 win over Biarritz in Cardiff.
Shaun Payne (Munster) – 2006
Halstead’s fellow former Shark and Springbok also started for Munster in their maiden European triumph. Equally capable at centre, wing and fullback, he wore the No 15 jersey on that historic day at the Principality Stadium. Payne played 109 matches for the club and became Munster manager in 2007, a position he held until 2012.
Shaun Sowerby (Toulouse) – 2010
The eighthman won his only Springbok cap in 2002 and captained the Sharks in 2003 before setting sail for France, where he featured for Stade Francais, Toulouse and Grenoble and made a total of 50 appearances in European rugby during an eight-year spell. He reached the pinnacle in 2010 when Toulouse pipped Biarritz 21-19 in Paris.
Richardt Strauss (Leinster) – 2011
The former Cheetahs hooker anchored Leinster’s scrum when they claimed a 33-22 win over the Northampton Saints in Cardiff in 2011. The Irish giants’ current coach Leo Cullen captained the side in the No 5 jersey. Strauss was a stalwart for Leinster, running out for them 141 times, and played 17 Tests for Ireland.
Heinke van der Merwe (Leinster) – 2011 and 2012
Leinster replaced one Springbok brute with another when they signed Van der Merwe as CJ van der Linde’s successor in 2010. The ex-Lions prop shared the field with Strauss in 2011 and added grunt off the bench for a second successive year as Leinster thrashed Ulster 42-14 at Twickenham.
Bakkies Botha (Toulon) – 2013, 2014 and 2015
The legendary Springbok and Bulls enforcer stands tall as the only South African to complete a European Champions Cup hat-trick. Toulon had several Saffas on their books at the time, but only Botha played in all three finals from 2013 to 2015, powering the French club to victories over Clermont (16-15 and 24-18) and Saracens (23-6).
Danie Rossouw (Toulon) – 2013 and 2014
A utility forward par excellence and Springbok and Bulls legend, Rossouw started at No 6 in the 16-15 win over Clermont in Dublin in 2013 and was Botha’s lock partner in the following year’s 23-6 victory over Saracens in Cardiff. The man who made THAT try-saving tackle on England wing Mark Cueto in the 2007 World Cup final finished his career at the French club.
Joe van Niekerk (Toulon) – 2013
Known as “Big” Joe during his playing days and now known as “Jungle” Joe, the dynamic loose forward broke into the Springbok squad as a Stormers standout and went on to win 52 Test caps. The 2002 South African Player of the Year signed with Toulon in 2008 and came on for the last 30 minutes of the 2013 final against Clermont.
Bryan Habana (Toulon) – 2014 and 2015
One of the greatest wings of all time, Habana headed to France in 2013 after having done it all in South African and Test rugby. The 2007 World Player of the Year joined a star-studded Toulon backline that included captain Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Mathieu Bastareaud and Drew Mitchell and won back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015.
Juan Smith (Toulon) – 2014 and 2015
An icon of Springbok and Cheetahs rugby, Smit came out of injury-prompted retirement in 2013 to end his decorated career on his own terms. As it turned out, the flanker still had plenty left in the tank as he scored the try that wrapped up the result for Toulon in the 2014 final and started in the No 6 jersey again in the following year’s 24-18 triumph over Clermont.
Craig Burden (Toulon) – 2014
The ex-Sharks hooker initially joined Toulon as a medical joker in 2013 and ended up staying until 2015 when he made the switch to Montpellier. The highlight of his time abroad was undoubtedly the 2014 final as he turned in a Man of the Match performance in the 23-6 victory over Saracens.
Michael Claassens (Toulon) – 2014
In between spells at the Cheetahs and the Sharks, Claasens spent six seasons at Bath (2007-2013) and two years at Toulon. The scrumhalf, who played eight Tests for the Springboks, came on for the French club in the final 10 minutes to help close out the 2014 final with his tactical nous.
Schalk Brits (Saracens) – 2016 and 2017
Beloved worldwide, the former Stormers hooker spent the bulk of his career at Saracens, playing 216 games for the English club over a glittering decade that saw him win four Premiership and two Champions Cup titles, the ever-smiling Springbok featuring in the 2016 and 2017 Euro finals.
Petrus du Plessis (Saracens) – 2016 and 2017
Du Plessis was born in Hermanus but played exclusively in Europe. A feared scrummager, the tighthead packed down with Brits and just like his hooker started in the 21-9 win over Racing 92 in Lyon in 2016 and came on as a replacement in the 28-17 victory over Clermont at Murrayfield the next year.
Michael Rhodes (Saracens) – 2016 and 2017
A Currie Cup winner with Western Province in 2014, the bruising back-rower made London his home in 2015 and quickly made the No 6 jersey his own. He started in both the 2016 and 2017 deciders and became a Saracens legend and centurion
Brad Barritt (Saracens) – 2016, 2017 and 2019
The ex-Sharks centre holds the distinction of being the only South African-born player to captain a club to European Champions Cup glory, achieving the feat not once, not twice but three times, the last coming in Cardiff, where he produced a Man of the Match performance as Saracens saw off Leinster 20-10 in 2019. While he never realised his Springbok dream, he played 26 Tests for England and toured with the British & Irish Lions in 2013.
Schalk Burger (Saracens) – 2017 and 2019
One of the greatest to ever don the green and gold, all-conquering Burger played a primary role in building the Stormers brand into what it is today, playing 123 games for the franchise from 2003 to 2016. Joining Saracens in the twilight of his career, the 2004 World Player of the Year was injected into the 2017 final off the bench and used in the same role in the 2019 final.
Vincent Koch (Saracens) – 2017 and 2019
A titan at scrum time, Koch helped power Saracens to two of their three title triumphs. The ex-Stormers tighthead started in the 2017 showpiece and came on in the 29th minute of the 10-point win over Leinster in 2019 to join a select group of players who’ve won the World Cup and European Champions Cup in the same year.
Jacques Vermeulen (Exeter Chiefs) – 2020
The former Junior Springbok was coming into his own at the Sharks when he was snapped up by Exeter in 2019. The industrious flank exploded onto the European scene, consistently producing standout showings to help the Chiefs claim a historic double in 2020.
Jannes Kirsten (Exeter Chiefs) – 2020
Equally adept at flank and lock, the big, red-headed utility forward brought the physical edge he’d developed at the Bulls to Exeter in 2019. He replaced Vermeulen in the second half of the 31-27 victory over Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup final with the two switching roles in the 19-13 win over the Wasps in the Premiership final a week later.
Cheslin Kolbe (Toulouse) – 2021
Underappreciated and overlooked in South Africa, Kolbe blossomed into arguably the best wing in the world after joining Toulouse from the Stormers in 2017. The pint-sized wizard forced his way into the Springbok team the next year and two years after scoring THAT iconic try in the World Cup final, he helped Toulouse secure a record fifth European crown.
Rynhardt Elstadt (Toulouse) – 2021
Like Kolbe, Elstadt only became a Springbok after he left the Stormers for Toulouse and like his fellow 2019 World Cup winner, the hard-nosed flanker was in the run-on side when they triumphed 22-17 over La Rochelle in last year’s all-French final at Twickenham.
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