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Champions Cup format still lacks the excitement of the old Heineken Cup days

The reverberations from the Anglo-French coup in 2014 continue to affect the success of Europe’s primary club competition

The Champions Cup is back this week and, it seems, with barely a whimper compared to the halcyon days of yore, especially across the channel in Brexit-land.

Almost none of the promises made when the old tournament organisers, ERC, were the victim of a very Anglo/French coup in 2014 have come to fruition, and the latest revised format continues to make one pine for the old days of the Heineken Cup.

Recall, if you will, that after Premiership Rugby (PRL) and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) served two years notice to ERC that they were withdrawing from the Heineken Cup, the former agreed a deal with BT Sport including rights to their ‘European’ matches.

The PRL and LNR then announced they would be organising their own tournament, namely the Rugby Champions Cup (subsequently receiving support from the WRU and Welsh regions). World Rugby voiced its disapproval and compromise was eventually reached with all six unions/federations and three club organisations (PRL, LNR and Regional Rugby Wales) under the aegis of the EPCR, to be based in Neuchetal, Switzerland.


The, eh, brave new dawn started with ERC being enlisted to run the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup in 2014-15, despite the PRL chairman Quentin Smith having previously declared the ERC was “no longer fit for purpose”.

A compromise was also reached to allow joint coverage between Sky Sports and BT Sport in that first season before the later took over in the UK and Ireland.

Amid more than a whiff of angst over the ERC offices having previously been based in Dublin and the Irish provinces having won seven Heineken Cups in a nine-year period culminating in the all-Irish 2012 final at Twickenham, the chief agitators for change sang like canaries to a largely uncritical English and French media, although in latter years there hasn’t been a peep out of them.

All manner of assurances were made that the new Champions Cup would mirror the Champions League with regard to television and sponsorship rights, none of which – unsurprisingly – came to pass.

Heineken having remained on board as de facto title sponsors for less outlay, finally a decade on, Investec will be the new title partner for the next five seasons of the Champions Cup, which the tournament organisers described as “the world’s biggest club rugby competition”.

Hmm. No doubt the LNR would dispute this claim on a number of levels, not least their four-year €454.4m deal with Canal+ until 2026-27, worth an annual €113.6m and a 17% increase on the previous contract. And therein, of course, lies the rub.

Prior to the Anglo-French coup, the Heineken Cup enjoyed 15 seasons of a settled, straightforward and spectator-friendly format featuring 24 teams divided into six pools of four.

The Anglo-French agitators for change assured us that a reduced 20-team format would increase the quality, yet ironically the Champions Cup has reverted to 24 teams for the last four seasons.

Admittedly, the redesigned format comprising 24 teams divided into two conferences of 12 was a sticking plaster in response to the Covid pandemic.

To the credit of the EPCR board of directors and the actual day-to-day staff, this saved the competitions amid all manner of gloomy forecasts from the doomsayers – be they scientists or journalists – that it would be impossible to do so, not to mention loud complaining from some of those on the receiving end of 28-0 walkovers.

Somehow, cross-border tournaments involving six countries were all completed and the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons will forever record that Exeter and Toulouse won the Champions Cup, and that Bristol and Montpellier won the Challenge Cup.

Heaven knows what damage might have been done had there been blank years with no champions and remember, too, that the 2019-20 French Championship was abandoned without any champion for the first time since the second World War.

But the French clubs liked the new, reduced, format of four pool matches and a Round of 16 which, by then reducing it to one leg, also served to restrict the Champions Cup to eight weekends instead of nine, so ensuring a mere two home pool games for the first time since the inaugural 1996-97 season.

Now, after three seasons of this, we have yet another change in format, with four pools of six within which a team will play four of their five pool opponents, with two games at home and two away.

Instead of those intriguing back-to-back December games, there will now be no home-and-away repeat clashes at all. Leinster have been pitted against La Rochelle in the Stade Marcel-Deflandre next Sunday but with no return fixture in the Aviva Stadium.

Furthermore, we will again have 48 pool matches to eliminate just eight of the 24 teams. But that said, it pays to achieve a higher ranking, literally. The four pool winners will be ranked from one to four based on their final tallies, with the second-placed sides ranked five to eight, and will thus also secure an additional home game in the Last 16.

Granted, the French clubs didn’t like teams playing opponents from their own leagues and this format continues to safeguard against that. This ‘multi-pool’ format might at least be an improvement on the Conference system. But the French Championship and Premiership knock-out stages have again been given primacy over the Champions Cup by coming afterwards in the end-of-season run-in.

It’s worth noting that the French have been supported in keeping the competition down to eight weekends by their Anglo friends. This is despite the PRL presiding over a Premiership reduced to 10 teams by the sad demise of Wasps, Worcester and London Irish, and therefore by six matches from 24 rounds to 18.

The same organisation which allied themselves with the LNR in that unholy alliance have presided over the loss of three clubs and are now being gobbled up by the French clubs in a flight of players of near wild geese proportions to the Top 14.

And wouldn’t you think they’d need the revenue of a third, guaranteed home fixture in the Champions Cup?

That’s laughable really.