There’s an uncanny irony in the Anglo-French dominated EPCR kicking off its curtailed, remodelled Heineken Champions Cup in its now delayed December start on the same weekend as France and England meet in the World Cup’s delayed December quarter-final slot.
Certainly, it’s safe to say the EPCR could have picked a better weekend, albeit it would probably bother the French and English clubs more if it was clashing with their domestic competitions. Adding to the irony, one imagines Castres are not exactly doing cartwheels about the prospect of kicking off their opening pool game at home to Exeter Chiefs an hour into the events at Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday night. Suffice to say, more Anglo-French eyes will be on Kylian Mbappé, Bukayo Saka and Co.
In both reducing the number of pool games from six to four, so deferring the tournament’s start from October to December, while increasing the number of participants from 20 to 24, the EPCR managed the curious trick of both curtailing and expanding the tournament at the same time – albeit in a perplexing, spectator-unfriendly format. Each team plays four pool matches against two opponents from different leagues and from the same 12-team pool, with the top eight advancing.
However, this season the competition has been curtailed from nine weekends to eight, so making the Last 16 round a straight knock-out rather than two-legged ties, which had been a relative success last season.
The tournament’s borders have also expanded beyond its original European Cup iteration to welcome South African teams. While the advent of the four Super Rugby franchises to the URC appears to be have had more plusses than minuses so far, their arrival into what had been a European competition doesn’t sit as well.
The initial losers are the Celtic/Italian axis which previously had a guaranteed seven or eight qualifiers per season for the Champions Cup. With three of the four South African sides qualifying, the net effect is that Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Edinburgh and the Ospreys comprise the lowest Celtic representation ever in the tournament’s history.
One can’t imagine the Champions Cup having much impact in Scotland and Wales, and still less still in Italy, not least as the Ospreys have little form (one win in nine) and both they and Edinburgh have tough draws.
The Challenge Cup has been skewed by the absence of Wasps and Worcester, leaving Connacht in the 10-team Pool A as opposed to the eight-team Pool B. The top six in each group advance to the round of 16, which is also over one leg, along with the sides ranked ninth and tenth in both pools of the Champions Cup.
Connacht will be targeting the Challenge Cup, not just for the silverware, but also as a means of securing safe passage back into next season’s Champions Cup.
Andy Friend’s team have a mixed draw in hosting Newcastle at the Sportsground on Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm) before facing Brive away next Friday, with the return fixtures in January. The Falcons are a cussed side with a hard-working ethic and a match-winner in Matteo Carreras, whereas Brive have had no upturn since removing Jeremy Davidson and sit bottom of the Top 14 after seven defeats in a row.
The Champions Cup’s impact in Ireland has been enhanced by the return of RTÉ for the first time since 2006 on the condition that their weekly game features an Irish side. So it is that they will broadcast the Munster-Toulouse clash on Sunday (3.15pm), the Leinster-Gloucester game next Friday in the RDS, along with the Munster-Northampton and Leinster-Racing 92 games in January.
While the Celtic teams make one trek per season to South Africa in the URC league rounds encompassing two matches back-to-back, French and English clubs may be in for a shock when experiencing safaris for one away game and the knock-on effects.
The French, in particular, do not appear to be too enamoured about embracing teams from the southern hemisphere.
As Antoine Dupont put it this week: “For all the purists, it’s a bit difficult to understand. We’ve all known the mythical European Cup. Now to see new teams ... it’s a new competition that begins. It’s no longer the European Cup, it’s the Champions Cup and it has to be approached like that. But it is a little hard to understand at times.”
So too, of course, the perplexing, pandemic-enforced format which came into being two seasons ago, but given those 12-team, four-match pools were reduced to two results per team, effectively we only have last season to use as a barometer. Even then that was skewed by 11 cancellations/walkovers.
On that basis, losing one or two pool games, or even three for that matter, is not as costly as in the old format. One win and a total of eight points was the threshold in Pool A last season, while one win and seven points sufficed in Pool B, where three more teams advanced with one victory apiece.
To the organisers’ credit, they got there in the end in each of the last two seasons but extreme weather or other unforeseen circumstances apart, touch wood this will be a more satisfyingly complete tournament in that regard at least.
Over in the wild, wild west, for example, the Sportsground now has its weather-resistant 4G pitch while the Thomond Park pitch was covered on Friday.
For what it’s worth only one of the five sides with one pool win made it beyond the Last 16 (Toulouse reaching the semi-finals) and only one of the sides who advanced with four wins out of four made it to the semi-finals, namely Racing.
To some extent then, after 48 matches succeeded in eliminating just eight of the 24 sides, the knock-out stages seem to almost become a new tournament, in which luck of the draw is a key element. Witness Ulster winning all four pool games last season and drawing Toulouse, to be eliminated by 50-49 on aggregate.
Ultimately, the teams that finished third and fourth in Pool A – La Rochelle and Leinster – contested the final. But while it’s hard to forecast the make-up of the Last 16, the advantages of securing as high a seeding as possible would seem to be even more advantageous given that round is now over one leg.
Were Leinster to beat Racing on Saturday in a hugely significant reprise of the 2018 final, then with Gloucester to come before hosting the Parisians in the Aviva Stadium, they could be well placed to secure a return there in the Last 16 and potentially deep into the tournament.
There is the added incentive of the final taking place in the Aviva for just the fourth time, and first in a decade. Against that, given this is Stuart Lancaster’s last season as head coach and almost certainly Johnny Sexton’s last Euro campaign as a player, were they not to earn that coveted fifth star, a return of one title since 2012 will seem even more of a disappointment.
The Irish sides will certainly want to achieve every advantage they can muster in the knock-out stages. As well as the three South African sides, three-time winners Saracens are also back. With favourable draws, Saracens and Leicester look well placed to perhaps go deep in the tournament – even if Steve Borthwick’s impending appointment as English coach may prove disruptive for the Tigers.
It so happens that Leinster, Munster and Ulster have also been drawn against the three most pro-European sides in the Top 14, namely Toulouse, Racing and Ronan O’Gara’s defending champions from La Rochelle.
All of which would suggest that the Champions Cup, for all its flaws, has never been more competitive.