Against the most disconcerting backdrop the sport has ever known, the Heineken Champions Cup is back with a new, one-off, complex format which is both shortened and expanded at the same time.
The first of four rounds kicks off this weekend, with the second next weekend followed by the last two in January. And that’s it for the group stages, with 24 teams whittled down to eight.
On the positive side, reverting to an expanded cast of 24, as opposed to 20 or even the oft-mooted 16, adds plenty of variety. There will be no match-ups between teams from the same leagues and two-legged, home and away quarter-finals should be very interesting as well as novel.
While playing four games against opponents from the other leagues in two pools of 12 is confusing, it should make more sense as it progresses and like never before teams and their supporters will be keeping a closer eye on results elsewhere.
As it’s a four-game sprint rather than a six-game middle distance run, all sides - even the French ones - will surely feel they may as well give it a go over the first rounds at least. It’s almost a free shot.
The eight French teams may also be best equipped to hit the ground running in light of the deal agreed between their Federation and the clubs to limit players to no more than three matches in the recent Test window.
Coming hard on the heels of the Autumn Nations Cup, the main fear for the Irish provinces is that not only have their internationals been away for two months, but that the Guinness Pro14 is ill-fitting preparation for this significant step up.
With much superior strength in depth than their Celtic and Italian rivals, the four of them occupy the top two places in their respective conferences, having won 28 of 30 matches. Leinster, Munster and Ulster have accumulated 22 wins out of 22, 17 of them with attacking bonus points.
Next up Toulouse, Montpellier, Racing and Harlequins.
Leinster go into the tournament without their bugbear Saracens on this season’s horizon and as favourites to win both win Pool A and the Cup for a fifth time. Both of their opponents are familiar, as they hold winning records over both Montpellier (4-1-1) and Northampton (8-0-1). Of the two Pools, this looks the likelier to produce a surprise.
At face value the other three Irish sides are in the tougher half of the draw. For example, Munster are sixth in the betting to win Pool B at 12-1, with Ulster 16-1 and Connacht the 100-1 outsiders.
Of course the other continuing factor is the absence of fans, obliging teams to again generate their own energy from their on field teammates and those on the sidelines. But the absence of fans can also makes some of the collisions all the more audible, and all the more disconcerting in light of the detailed accounts in The Guardian this week of the brain trauma suffered by Steve Thompson, Alix Popham and Michael Lipman.
Ulster are the first Irish team in action when hosting Toulouse at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday. They are one of the few teams who have a winning record against the French aristocrats, winning five and drawing one of their nine meetings, including four victories out of five in Belfast.
But all those were when the ground was heaving and had that been the case for a Friday night opener this evening it would surely have again added to the home side’s performance.
The 2020-21 Heineken Champions Cup
How does it work?
The eight highest ranked teams from the Pro14, Top 14 and Premiership have been divided into two pools of 12. Each team will play just four inter-pool matches, home and way against one opponent each from the other two leagues, with these games coming over the next fortnight and in two weekends in January.
Who qualifies for the knockout stages?
Along with four points for a win and two for a draw, the bonus point system again applies. The four teams with the most match points after four matches in each pool will progress to the knockout stages, with the teams ranked fifth to eighth competing in the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup. In the event of two or more sides finishing level on match points, their ranking will be determined by points difference. The quarter-finals will be two-legged, home and away ties.
How are the quarter-finals determined?
The team ranked first in Pool A will meet the fourth ranked team in Pool B, with the team ranked second in pool A coming up against the team ranked third in Pool B, and vice versa. The higher ranked sides will play at home in the second legs with the ties to be played on the first and second weekends of April.
The semi-finals, which will be one-off ties, will take place on the first weekend in May, with the higher ranked clubs from the pool stages having home country advantage. The final will be on May 22nd in Marseille.
What are the pools?
POOL A (with opponents in brackets)
Bordeaux-Bègles (Dragons, Northampton Saints)
Leinster Rugby (Montpellier, Northampton Saints)
Wasps (Dragons, Montpellier)
Bath Rugby (La Rochelle, Scarlets)
Edinburgh Rugby (La Rochelle, Sale Sharks)
RC Toulon (Sale Sharks, Scarlets)
La Rochelle (Bath Rugby, Edinburgh Rugby)
Sale Sharks (Edinburgh Rugby, RC Toulon)
Scarlets (Bath Rugby, RC Toulon)
Dragons (Bordeaux-Bègles, Wasps)
Montpellier (Leinster Rugby, Wasps)
Northampton Saints (Bordeaux-Bègles, Leinster Rugby)
The main contenders
Montpellier, whom Leinster visit on Saturday, are going through a transition period according to Director of Rugby Philippe Saint-André. They stand 11th in the Top 14 but have played the fewest games and they were buoyed by a fine 21-15 win away to Clermont last Saturday when their 18-year-old outhalf, Louis Foursans-Bourdette, landed seven of eight penalties.
Backed by Bernard Laporte’s friend and the French team’s jersey sponsor, Mohed Altrad, with Xavier Garbajosa as head coach, they play a less structured game than before, based more on ‘mouvement général’. Paul Willemse and Louis Picamoles still provide the power up front, and the athletic, long-serving Fulgence Ouedraogo remains a threat on opposition throws, while South African scrumhalf Cobus Reinach is their razor-sharp match winner.
Northampton were flying high in the first-half of last season but they have equalled an unwanted club record of 10 successive defeats. Contriving to lose 18-17 away to Bristol last weekend after leading 14-0 demonstrated they have forgotten how to win.
Bordeaux-Begles are second favourites in this pool, largely based on them finishing atop an abandoned 2019-20 Top 14 and thus earning a favourable draw. Maybe it went to their heads. They’ve had a so-so season so far in the Top 14 and sit in eighth place with five wins and a fifth defeat at home to Racing last week. But Mathieu Jalibert returns from Test duty, and there’s few outhalves in the world who could set up that try at Twickenham in the manner he did.
Wasps look a good bet to make the quarter-finals. After Lee Blackett took over as head coach from Dai Young last February, they climbed from 10th to reach the Premiership semi-final, winning 12 of their last 14 matches - 10 with bonus points. Jack Willis emerged as the latest in England's list of quality flankers, with Dan Robson and Jimmy Gopperth pulling the strings.
They thrashed Bristol and extended Exeter in a tight final, although they have stuttered lately, losing to Gloucester and Newcastle.
It remains to be seen if Sale will be unsettled by losing rugby director Steve Diamond during the week. With a game based on winning the collisions and mauling, only an outbreak of Covid-19 denied them a place in the Premiership semi-finals last season. Their big bruising pack will seriously Test Edinburgh before a couple of bruisers with Toulon.
Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle sit atop the Top 14, with six home wins out of six, but they lost away to Lyon last week. Nor is the Heineken Cup in the club’s DNA, this being just their third campaign. They are also likely to be missing star man Brice Dulin in Murrayfield after his head knock and 95 minute exertions when simply outstanding against England last Sunday.
But the South African utility back Dilyn Leyds is a good replacement, they have a tasty backline and in Uini Atonio and Will Skelton have a couple of game changers. Both their opponents are struggling to form, even if Bath and especially the Scarlets will welcome back a clutch of internationals this week.
Pedigree counts in this competition and three-time winners Toulon will fancy their chances against Sale, and the Scarlets. Ma’a Nonu has rejoined although his late verbal spat with Mathieu Raynal last weekend cost them a possible win at Stade Francias, to link up with Eben Etzebeth and Sergio Parisse. On Stade’s all-weather pitch, Parisse (38) and Nonu (37) were Toulon’s best players. The classy Baptiste Serin makes them tick.
A run of seven wins in eight games post-lockdown propelled Bath into the Premiership semi-finals but they were well beaten by Exeter and after losing their opening two games of the new season they had a timely win away to Worcester last week.
Like the Scarlets and Edinburgh, based on their Pro14 form Dean Ryan’s Dragons would appear to be batting out of their league.
Forecast: Leinster, Bordeaux-Bègles, Wasps and La Rochelle to qualify.
POOL B (with opponents in brackets)
Exeter Chiefs (Glasgow Warriors, Toulouse)
Lyon (Glasgow Warriors, Gloucester Rugby)
Ulster Rugby (Gloucester Rugby, Toulouse)
Bristol Bears (ASM Clermont Auvergne, Connacht Rugby)
Munster Rugby (ASM Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins)
Racing 92 (Connacht Rugby, Harlequins)
ASM Clermont Auvergne (Bristol Bears, Munster Rugby)
Connacht Rugby (Bristol Bears, Racing 92)
Harlequins (Munster Rugby, Racing 92)
Glasgow Warriors (Exeter Chiefs, Lyon)
Gloucester Rugby (Lyon, Ulster)
Toulouse (Exeter Chiefs, Ulster Rugby)
The main contenders
Defending champions Exeter and four-time winners Toulouse meet twice in a reprise of their semi-final last September (the Chiefs won 28-18) and that could make qualification for one or both of these two heavy hitters more difficult.
Munster have a week to regroup from Ireland's exertions before hosting dangerous opponents in Harlequins at Thomond Park on Sunday. 'Quins have scored 10 tries and 83 points in back-to-back bonus point wins over Northampton and Gloucester. They play a high tempo, offloading brand of rugby if given the chance and their 21-year-old Filipino born outhalf Marcus Smith makes the game look very easy, while Danny Care and Mike Brown are enjoying Indian summers. Number 8 Alex Dombrandt gives them most of their go-forward ball but they're at their best on a good, dry track.
The absence of fans will be keenly felt in Munster's latest renewals with Clermont, who have won five of the previous seven meetings. Although they still pack a punch as well as X factor in Alivereti Raka and Kotaro Matsushima, les jaunards are going through something of a transition and appear to have lost some of their old aura, with Morgan Parra and Camille Lopez no longer the forces of yore either.
Ulster have a particularly tough task, beginning with Toulouse at the Kingspan Stadium tonight followed by Gloucester. Toulouse beat them 36-8 in the sides' post-lockdown quarter-final last September, albeit Ulster had chances to make that a much more competitive tie. But Toulouse's big guns, Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and co, have not been flogged during the Test window and the come into this game on the back of three successive wins.
No team should be hungrier than Racing 92, given the memory of their third final loss in five years just eight weeks ago. Laurent Travers was part of the Brive side which won the Heineken Cup in 1997 and both he, Jacky Lorenzetti and the club get Europe.
Donnacha Ryan, Simon Zebo and their cast of match-winners will welcome Connacht and their ambitious brand of rugby to the 4G surface at La Defense Arena for what should be an entertaining joust on Saturday, and their games against Harlequins could be no less enjoyable. Admittedly, away from home Racing can play a more containing, kicking brand of rugby. But the Parisians are 5-4 favourites to win Pool B and with good reason.
After Racing, Connacht welcome Bristol on Sunday week to the Sportsground for a reunion with former head coach Pat Lam, their most-capped player of all time John Muldoon, and both Jake Heenan and Niyi Adeolokun. That would have been some occasion with a full house but even without one Andy Friend's team will again have a go. Further buoyed by the return of Quinn Roux, Bundee Aki and the rest of their Irish contingent, the way Connacht appreciate and exploit pace bears the hallmark of a side well coached in what they're doing, and are enjoying it too.
Uber ambitious Lam, Bristol believe they have said farewell to the Challenge Cup after winning the trophy eight weeks ago. Like Exeter, they’ve had no pre-season worth the name but have thus retained their fitness levels without having Exeter’s machine-like efficiency. As Lam admitted apologetically, they found a way to win a poor match with the last kick of the game at home to Northampton last Friday.
Although Lyon have won only one match in two previous Heineken Cup campaigns, they are third favourites to win this pool and could well be dark horses alright. Their Tier 1 seeding has granted them a misfiring Gloucester first up at home, followed by a misfiring Glasgow - albeit with their internationals back - away.
They should at least win their two home games. Although not a team of stars, as he showed last week Baptiste Couilloud is another of France’s conveyor belt of quality scrumhalves, Jonathan Wisniewski kicks his goals, Charlie Ngatai can kick the ball 80 metres and any team with Josua Tuisova can score tries.
Forecast: Racing 92, Bristol, Toulouse and Munster to qualify.
When are the matches?
Round 1 - 11th/12th/13th December 2020
Round 2 - 18th/19th/20th December 2020
Round 3 - 15th/16th/17th January 2021
Round 4 - 22nd/23rd/24th January 2021
Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals, 1st leg - 2nd/3rd/4th April 2021
Challenge Cup Round of 16 - 2nd/3rd/4th April 2021
Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals, 2nd leg - 9th/10th/11th April 2021
Challenge Cup quarter-finals - 9th/10th/11th April 2021
Semi-finals - 30th April - 1st/2nd May 2021
2021 finals - Stade Vélodrome, Marseille
Challenge Cup final - Friday 21st May
Heineken Champions Cup final - Saturday 22nd May
What are the opening weekend’s fuxture?
(All games live on BT Sport)
Northampton Saints v Bordeaux-Bègles, Franklin's Gardens (5.30); Ulster v Toulouse, Kingspan Stadium (8.0).
Bristol Bears v ASM Clermont Auvergne, Ashton Gate (1.0) (Virgin Media/C4); Bath v Scarlets, Recreation Ground (3.15); RC Toulon v Sale Sharks, Stade Félix Mayol (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish); Montpellier v Leinster, GGL Stadium (6.30pm local time/5.30 Irish); Dragons v Wasps, Rodney Parade (5.30); Edinburgh v La Rochelle, BT Murrayfield (8.0).
Lyon v Gloucester, Matmut Stadium de Gerland (2.0 local time.1.0 Irish); Racing 92 v Connacht, Paris La Défense Arena (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish); Exeter Chiefs v Glasgow Warriors, Sandy Park (3.15pm); Munster v Harlequins, Thomond Park (5.30).
And the fixtures after that?
Friday, December 18th
Scarlets v RC Toulon, Parc y Scarlets (5.30); Wasps v Montpellier, Ricoh Arena (8.0).
Saturday, December 19th
Leinster v Northampton Saints, RDS Arena (1.0) (Virgin Media/C4); Glasgow Warriors v Lyon, Scotstoun Stadium (1.0); La Rochelle v Bath, Stade Marcel Deflandre (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish); Gloucester v Ulster; Kingsholm Stadium (3.15); Clermont Auvergne v Munster, Stade Marcel-Michelin (6.30 local time/5.30 Irish); Sale Sharks v Edinburgh, AJ Bell Stadium (8.0); Bordeaux-Begles v Dragons, Stade Chaban-Delmas (9.0 local time/8.0 Irish).
Sunday, December 20th
Harlequins v Racing 92, Twickenham Stoop (1.0); Toulouse v Exeter Chiefs, Stade Ernest Wallon (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish); Connacht v Bristol Bears, The Sportsground (5.30).
Irish teams' remaining fixtures:
Friday (Jan 15th): Northampton Saints v Leinster, Franklin's Gardens (5.30).
Saturday (Jan 16th): Ulster v Gloucester, Kingspan Stadium (1.0) (Virgin Media/C4); Munster v Clermont Auvergne, Thomond Park (5.30).
Sunday (Jan 17th): Bristol Bears v Connacht, Ashton Gate (5.30).
Friday (Jan 22nd): Leinster v Montpellier, RDS (5.30).
Saturday (Jan 23rd): Harlequins v Munster, Twickenham Stoop (5.30); Connacht v Racing 92, the Sportsground (8.0).
Sunday (Jan 24th): Toulouse v Ulster, Stade Ernest Wallon (4.15 local time/3.15 Irish).