United Rugby Championship

Esterhuizen, Duhan and Tambwe: Top players that will face SA countrymen in European cups

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Andre Esterhuizen (Getty)
Andre Esterhuizen (Getty)
  • The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup draw on Tuesday threw a few intriguing South African-on-South African grudge match-ups.
  • Springbok Andre Esterhuizen is set to face his old Sharks team, who also clash with Bordeaux-bound Madosh Tambwe, while Arno Botha makes an instant return to Loftus with Lyon.
  • Duhan van der Merwe could be seen at Ellis Park against the Lions with Worcester Warriors when the Challenge Cup hits Johannesburg.

It was inevitable that the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup draw conducted on Tuesday would produce some grudge match-ups between the South African franchises facing their overseas-based defectors.

And true to suspicion, some big clashes, loaded with rich narratives, have been served.

At the top of the bill is Springbok centre Andre Esterhuizen returning to face his former Sharks team-mates for the first time since leaving for Harlequins in England in 2020.

READ | Bok coach explains Handre Pollard omission: 'There is nothing sinister'

Almost serendipitously, Arno Botha will return, once again, to Loftus with French club Lyon, whom he is set to join after concluding a hugely successful two years with the Bulls - his second spell since leaving the first time in 2017.

Of course, there's Bordeaux's newest South African recruit, Madosh Tambwe from the Bulls, who will also face one of his former sides, the Sharks, in the Champions Cup.

Some South African-on-South African match-ups might develop in the respective competitions' knock-outs.

But here is a list of some of the top players that will do battle against their South African compatriots in the pool stages of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup next season:

Andre Esterhuizen – Harlequins (Racing 92, Sharks)

Word on the street is the Sharks tried to get Esterhuizen back after seeing what a huge void he left in their midfield after departing for Harlequins at the end of Super Rugby 2020.

After numerous attempts through Marius Louw and Ben Tapuai to fill it, they eventually settled on bringing Rohan Janse van Rensburg back to SA from Sale Sharks.

Esterhuizen, meanwhile, became a top player at 'Quins, where he won the Rugby Players' Association men's Players' Player-of-the-Year award.

He also won the 2021 Gallagher Premiership with Harlequins.

Arno Botha - Lyon (Saracens, Bulls)

The bustling experienced loose-forward isn't long confirmed to be leaving Loftus a second time but he will be back in Lyon's colours during the Champions Cup pool stages.

Botha again offered professional services to the Bulls in the Jake White era, famously scoring the extra-time Currie Cup-winning try against the Sharks in January 2021, one of three trophies they won that year.

Madosh Tambwe – Union Bordeaux-Bègles (Gloucester Rugby, Sharks)

"At least I know now there are three possibilities of playing South African teams in the Champions Cup. It's like the Uefa Champions League of rugby," Tambwe told Sport24 after the United Rugby Championship season ended and his move to Bordeaux confirmed.

He got his wish and will face the Sharks, the franchise that perhaps valued him the least, if you consider the playing time afforded to him.

Although he strung together memorable Bulls performances since last year, Tambwe has another chance to show the Durban side what they lost.

READ | How Springboks are looking to turn Damian Willemse into the new Frans Steyn

Stephan Lewies - Harlequins (Racing 92, Sharks)

The former Sharks and Springbok lock left South Africa in 2018 for Japan, came back to play for the Lions before heading to Harlequins in 2019, where he's been based since.

He was the breakthrough twin to Pieter-Steph du Toit around 2012, when the pair were touted to become a second-row force in South African rugby.

Du Toit lived up to the billing, however, Lewies, now 30, was left behind.

Tyrone Green - Harlequins (Racing 92, Sharks)The former Lions firecracker shocked many when he opted to leave the Lions relatively early in his career, at just 22 years old.But one cannot begrudge his success at Harlequins, where he's lit up Twickenham with his lively play from fullback and part-time wing.He'll be a treat to watch again in the Champions Cup.

Duhan van der Merwe - Worcester Warriors (Lions, Benetton Rugby)

The former Bulls wing was the villain-in-chief when he arrived in South Africa for the first time as a Scotland international on the British & Irish Lions tour.

Van der Merwe was a powerful weapon for Warren Gatland, and it's likely he'll be the same against the Lions in the Challenge Cup.

He will foam at the mouth at the prospect of playing at Ellis Park against his countrymen.

JJ van der Mescht - Stade Français (Lions, Benetton Rugby)

The former SA Under-20 starlet received the most scathing departure note from Sharks CEO Eduard Coetzee when they released him to join the French club.

"He has immense potential, and we hope that this move to France gives him renewed motivation to work on his fitness and discipline," said Coetzee in a parting note.

The only hope is that he shows he took the sage advice when the Challenge Cup comes around.

Francois Venter - Worcester Warriors (Lions, Benetton Rugby)

The Springbok centre gave the national team, Bulls and the Cheetahs, great service and was an impeccable leader in every dressing room he was part of.

He was a victim of some of the post-Allister Coetzee cull and never quite made a mark on Rassie Erasmus' new dispensation.

Damian de Allende's resurgence might have also had plenty to do with that.

A quality player nonetheless, who has been missed by rugby purists.

Other South Africans featuring in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup:

Allan Dell - London Irish

Michael Willemse – London Irish

Jacques Vermeulen - Exeter Chiefs

Jordan Els – Harlequins

James Hall – Stade Français

2022/23 Heineken Champions Cup draw:

Pool A

Castres Olympique, Saracens, Bulls, Union Bordeaux-Begles, Harlequins, Leinster, Racing 92, Gloucester, Sharks, Lyon, Exeter Chiefs, Edinburgh Rugby

Pool B 

Montpellier, Leicester Tigers, Stormers, Stade Toulousain, Northampton Saints, Ulster, Stade Rochelais, Sale Sharks, Munster, ASM Clermont Auvergne, London Irish, Ospreys 

2022/23 weekends:

Round 1 - 9/10/11 December 2022

Round 2 - 16/17/18 December 2022 

Round 3 - 13/14/15 January 2023 

Round 4 - 20/21/22 January 2023

Round of 16 - 31 March/ 1/2 April 2023 

Quarter-finals - 7/8/9 April 2023 

Semi-finals - 28/29/30 April 2023 

Champions Cup final - Saturday 20 May 2023 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin

EPCR Challenge Cup draw:

Pool A

Glasgow Warriors, RC Toulon, Bristol Bears, Connacht Rugby, Cardiff Rugby, CA Brive, Newcastle Falcons, Zebre Parma, Perpignan, Bath Rugby

Pool B

Scarlets, Section Paloise, Wasps, Lions, Benetton Rugby, Stade Francais, Worcester Warriors, Dragons RFC Bayonne, Cheetahs 

2022/23 weekends: 

Round 1 - 9/10/11 December 2022 

Round 2 - 16/17/18 December 2022 

Round 3 - 13/14/15 January 2023 

Round 4 - 20/21/22 January 2023 

Round of 16 - 31 March/ 1/2 April 2023 

Quarter-finals - 7/8/9 April 2023 

Semi-finals - 28/29/30 April 2023 

EPCR Challenge Cup final - Friday 19 May 2023 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin 

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