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The Sharks’ nights in the United Rugby Championship (URC) may have been long, but the Durban team have a proper crack at a bright new dawn by reaching next year’s Champions Cup.

A Challenge Cup semifinal and final now stand between them and backdoor entry to European rugby’s elite league.

Should they go on to win the Challenge Cup and qualify for the prestigious competition, in some ways it will be a successful shot at redemption after they fired too many blanks in the URC. Their path to glory in the Challenge Cup is of course by no means a fait accompli as they will face stiff opposition in the semifinal and final.

Their first hurdle is on May 4 when they clash with Clermont Auvergne at Harlequins’ home ground, The Stoop, in southwest London. Current EPCR tournament rules preclude SA teams hosting rights for the semifinals and the finals of the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup. At least the Sharks won’t have to travel to Clermont’s daunting Stade Marcel-Michelin, where hosts routinely burn rubber.

The Sharks will have to overcome a team in search of a record fourth Challenge Cup trophy. Ironically, Clermont share the record competition wins with Harlequins, who have gone on to bigger and brighter things in the Champions Cup this season.

The Sharks, you may recall, are no strangers to The Stoop. The first URC match on English soil was played there in November 2023 when the Sharks clashed with the Ospreys. The Sharks lost that encounter, drawing more gloom over their poor start to the URC season.

Unlike their frustrations in the URC, they have taken a shine to the Challenge Cup this season. They went through the pool stages with an unblemished record and are the tournament’s top points and try scorers. They comfortably topped their pool and only Gloucester, who operated in a different pool, amassed as many log points.

The Sharks semifinal opponents are unlikely to go away quietly. Clermont have made far more metres, have beaten more defenders and made more clean breaks than any other team in the Challenge Cup. Moreover, the way Clermont dismantled Ulster (53-14) to reach the semis suggests they are opponents that need to be taken seriously.

Though the Sharks have assembled a galaxy of stars over the past few seasons, Clermont remain a respected club with an irresistible draw.

Los Pumas stars Marcos Kremer and Tomas Lavanini bring a hard edge to their forward operations, while former Wallaby Rob Simmons delivers a calming influence in the second row. In Peceli Yato and Pita Gus Sowakula, Clermont possess gainline bashing backrowers.

Former France international Anthony Belleau directs traffic from flyhalf, while erstwhile Blues bruiser George Moala cuts a sturdy presence at second receiver. There is threat out wide, where blockbusting Alivereti Raka provides turf-moving thrust, while another Argentine, Bautista Delguy, eludes tackles more than he breaks them on the other wing.

Clermont will be redoubtable opponents.

The Sharks, however, have a proper shot at redemption. If they overcome Clermont they should confidently stride to the May 24 final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Gloucester and Benetton Treviso, who contest the other semifinal, will have other ideas. Gloucester have struggled to assert themselves back home in the Premiership, while Benetton have lost some of their early season momentum in the URC.

Either way, if the Sharks reach the final it will be a challenge they will be eager to sink their teeth into.

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