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Having reached base camp for the first time, SA’s teams can this weekend begin their assault on Europe’s highest peak with the start of the knockout rounds of the Champions Cup

Of course, there remains discourse about whether Mount Elbrus is actually in Europe, but that should not temper the Stormers, Bulls and Sharks’ sense of belonging as they set about their conquest.

They will have their first taste of Champions Cup knockout rugby when they go into combat in the round of 16 this weekend.

The Stormers, given recent history, form and the nature of the draw, are perhaps best suited to go deep in the competition. They play the Harlequins in Cape Town on Saturday and will have reason to go into the fixture confident of getting another positive result at home.

The Bulls and Sharks, who are in the other half of the draw, have reason to be less sanguine. Champions Cup aristocrats Toulouse and Leinster are in their half of the draw. In fact, record five-time winners Toulouse host the Bulls at their Stade Ernst Wallon base on Sunday and the portents aren’t great for the visitors.

Recent results suggest the Bulls are in a downward spiral and Toulouse look likely to field something resembling their best squad for the occasion. Last season Toulouse shot themselves in the foot by not selecting their best team in the pool stages and the resultant defeat ended their chances of a home semifinal. It meant an end of the road trip to Dublin in the Champions Cup semifinals against Leinster.

Jake White’s team, however, aren’t complete no-hopers. They achieved what Toulouse couldn’t last year — inflicting a defeat on Leinster in front of their fans, albeit in the United Rugby Championship.

White has had the benefit of a full week’s preparation in Europe after his trip to Belfast last week to play Ulster.

He will have to devise ways of neutralising Toulouse’s monster pack and their live-wire scrumhalf Antoine Dupont. Those, however, are only the superficial challenges.

Victory over France’s most decorated side will be the disinfectant on the wounds inflicted by recent defeats but won’t be the panacea for the underlying issues that have afflicted the Bulls this season. A win though will certainly endow them with a spring in their step.

Should the Bulls pull off an upset, they may well meet the Sharks in the quarterfinals. That will be a considerable carrot for White and his team.

Not that the Sharks are guaranteed a spot in the quarters. They meet Munster in Durban on Saturday and, though they have home comforts, their passage to the next round is far from assured given their recent form.

Their fans can perhaps draw comfort from the fact that the Sharks will almost certainly be better than they were against the Scarlets last weekend.

The same however applies to Munster, who were handed a chastening home defeat by Glasgow Warriors. Munster head coach Graham Rowntree expects “an honest” response from his players in Durban.

“What a memory this will be if we get it right on the weekend,” Rowntree said.

The second-row match-up between Eben Etzebeth and RG Snyman, now fit again, is eagerly awaited and may be one of the abiding features of the match.

On the other side of the draw, URC champs the Stormers will clash with Harlequins and they will have to do so with a lingering depth deficiency in the second row. They will be without lock Ruben van Heerden, who is cup tied having played for Exeter Chiefs earlier this season.

But the Stormers have somehow managed to successfully plug the gaps when they’ve occurred this season.

If much of the pre-clash talk in Durban is around thunderous collisions by opposing second rowers, the match in Cape Town is one of first receivers hoping to avoid each other. In Manie Libbok and Marcus Smith, the Stormers and Harlequins have playmakers who seek space and time. An off-day for either could be catastrophic for their respective teams.

Should the Stormers overcome this hurdle they can look forward to another potential home clash against Exeter Chiefs or Montpellier in the quarterfinals.

Three-time champions Saracens and defending champions La Rochelle also lurk in that half of the draw. They look on course to meet in the quarterfinals so the Stormers will only have to concern themselves with one of the two should they reach the semis.

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