THE Dragons will be joined in the Challenge Cup by the Lions and Cheetahs next season after the green light was given to five South African sides playing in European competition.

The Bulls, Sharks and Stormers have qualified for the top-tier Champions Cup after finishing in the play-off positions in their first season in the United Rugby Championship.

The Lions and Cheetahs, who controversially missed out on the URC after previously being in the PRO14, will play in the second tier.

The formats for the competitions are yet to be announced after the past two seasons have been hit by coronavirus but the pool draws will take place later this month with the first fixtures taking place in December.

The widely-expected move has been described as "a crucial step forward" by EPCR chairman Dominic McKay.

Rugby union's European Cup began in 1996, with its roll of honour featuring winners from England, France and Ireland.

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McKay said: "We are delighted to confirm that the South African clubs will be part of our expanded tournaments from the beginning of next season.

"The Stormers, Bulls, Sharks and Lions will all bring hugely exciting southern hemisphere rugby, well-known world-class players and broad new audiences into our tournaments.

"The steps we have taken with our stakeholder leagues and with SARU (South African Rugby Union) ensure that we can further develop the tournaments as the pinnacle of global club rugby.

"This is a crucial step forward in bringing to life our vision of growing the game and our own tournaments, continuing to deliver strong returns for our leagues and creating an ever-higher standard of mouthwatering matches for our fans."

More than 100,000 spectators watched the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals in Marseille last weekend, and EPCR said that next season's tournament formats will be announced shortly.

SARU chief executive Jurie Roux added: "We would like to thank all stakeholders who have been involved in the negotiation process – the board and staff of EPCR, the URC, Premiership Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby.

"Ever since we've made the decision to align with the northern hemisphere, our aim was to play in the EPCR competitions.

"As we've seen during the inaugural season of the URC, the rugby is of the highest standard and our top players definitely benefited from this move.

"We now have an opportunity to also start rubbing shoulders with the top clubs from England and France in two other competitions that have caught the imagination of rugby supporters around the globe for more than two decades."

Next season's European finals weekend is set for the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on May 19 and 20.