The four South African teams in action – the Vodacom Bulls, Emirates Lions, Cell C Sharks and DHL Stormers – face a baptism of fire in the coming weeks as they kick off this new competition on the road, with four away matches to some of the strongest club sides in the Northern Hemisphere.

It will also be the first time most of these players play in front of spectators in more than 18 months, as all the European venues will allow fans through the gates.

The Vodacom Bulls know what it’s all about after they had to travel to Italy earlier this year for the Rainbow Cup final against Benetton, and they admitted afterwards that playing up in the north presents a “completely different game” to what they were used to.

The Emirates Lions will be first into this brave new world when they take on the other Italian club in the competition, Zebre, in Parma on Friday evening.

The Italian club is coached by former Ireland scrumhalf and captain, Michael Bradley, and they have former Border and Cell C Sharks loose forward Johan Meyer, who has played 14 Tests for the Azzurri, as well as Erich Cronje, who until recently still played for the New Nation Pumas, on their books.

The other three South African teams are in action on Saturday, with the DHL Stormers taking on Benetton in Treviso, while the Vodacom Bulls and Cell C Sharks are in action against Irish powerhouses Leinster (in Dublin) and Munster (in Limerick) respectively.

The Capetonians will bump into a number of familiar faces in Italy – former DHL Stormers scrumhalf Dewaldt Duvenage is one of the leaders in the Benetton squad, and fellow-South Africans Rhyno Smith, Andries Coetzee, Corniel Els, Carl Wegner and Irne Herbst are also part of their group of players.

The Vodacom Bulls – back-to-back Carling Currie Cup winners – face arguably the toughest task of the weekend against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.

The team from Dublin – with four 2021 British & Irish Lions in their midst in Jack Conan, Tadhg Furlong, Robbie Henshaw and Andrew Porter – are the most successful in the history of the competition, with eight titles as the tournament evolved from the Celtic League 20 years ago (they also finished runners up on five occasions), to the PRO12 and later the PRO14, to what is now the Vodacom United Rugby Championship.

Leinster, four-time Heineken Champions Cup winners, will provide the Vodacom Bulls with a serious start to their title ambitions. The Irish powerhouse, who last missed out on a spot in the playoffs in the 2014/15 season, are almost unstoppable at the Aviva and won the last four PRO14 competitions.

The final match in the opening round takes place 200km south-west of Dublin, in the city of Limerick, where former Springbok assistant coach Johann van Graan and his three-time champions Munster side await the Cell C Sharks at Thomond Park.

Tadhg Beirne and Conor Murray are the two Munster players who recently toured South Africa with the British & Irish Lions, while Damian de Allende (currently on tour with the Springboks), RG Snyman, Jason Jenkins, Chris Cloete and Jean Kleyn will be able to tell their fellow South Africans about Munster’s very passionate fan base.

Match information:

Zebre v Emirates Lions
Date: Friday, 24 September
Venue: Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi, Parma (Italy)
SA time: 18h35
Referee: Chris Busby (Ireland)
TV: SuperSport

Benetton v DHL Stormers
Date: Saturday, 25 September
Venue: Stadio Comunale di Monigo, Treviso (Italy)
SA time: 14h00
Referee: Frank Murphy (Ireland)
TV: SuperSport

Leinster v Vodacom Bulls
Date: Saturday, 25 September
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin (Ireland)
SA time: 18h15
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)
TV: SuperSport

Munster v Cell C Sharks
Date: Saturday, 25 September
Venue: Thomond Park, Limerick (Ireland)
SA time: 20h35
Referee: Craig Evans (Wales)
TV: SuperSport

Competition format:

The 18-round regular season in the Vodacom United Rugby Championship will see one league table to rank the teams who will reach the knock-out stages.

Fixtures: The regular season of the Vodacom United Rugby Championship will take place across 18 rounds with each team’s fixtures comprising of six home AND away fixtures against their regional pool opponents and 12 home OR away fixtures against the remaining teams in the league.

Regional pools

South African Pool: Cell C Sharks, DHL Stormers, Emirates Lions and Vodacom Bulls

Italian & Scottish Pool: Benetton Rugby, Edinburgh, Glasgow Warriors, Zebre Rugby Club

Irish Pool: Connacht, Leinster, Munster, Ulster

Welsh Pool: Dragons, Cardiff Rugby, Ospreys, Scarlets

Final Series / Play-Offs: One league table will be used to rank teams and after 18 rounds the top eight sides will qualify for the Play-Offs. Teams will be seeded from 1 to 8 and will receive home advantage according to their seeding.

A full round of quarter-finals and semi-finals will take place to produce two teams who will qualify for the Grand Final.