Champions Cup could reduce teams and make semis two legs
Number of teams in the competition could be cut down as organisers evaluate plans
Saracens lift the Champions Cup trophy after beating Leinster in May. Only those two teams and Toulon have won the competition since 2010. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Changes to the structure of the Champions Cup are being considered with some stakeholders keen to reduce the competition to 18 teams. Organisers are pushing for a final decision within weeks as they look to guarantee the future of the tournament beyond 2022 when existing commercial and broadcasting contracts expire.
Europe’s flagship club tournament involves 20 teams in five pools of four but it is understood discussions are continuing about the possibility of switching to six pools of three, featuring the top six sides from the Premiership, Pro 14 and Top 14.
This could free up sufficient space in the packed calendar for money-spinning home and away semi-finals, as has long been the case in football’s Champions League.
This format has yet to be agreed but the idea is believed to be attracting more support than a rival proposal to cut the field to 16 teams. One of the attractions of an 18-team competition would be to prevent teams from the same country from meeting each other in the pool stages, as has been the case again this year.
There are those who do not see much wrong with the 20-team format, which has been in place since the 2014-15 season. Match attendances for the first half of this season’s pool stages rose by 7 per cent, boosted by the recent World Cup and the improved visibility of the competition on terrestrial television. Many Premiership sides have chosen to field weakened sides in the Champions Cup this season, however, and it is widely acknowledged the Challenge Cup, for teams who fail to qualify for the top-tier tournament, needs reinvigorating.
With European Professional Club Rugby looking to put in place a range of commercial and broadcasting deals beyond 2022, Premiership Rugby’s new relationship with the private equity firm CVC has also led to some speculation about the potential implications for the supposed jewel in Europe’s club crown, particularly given only three teams – Leinster, Toulon and Saracens – have won the trophy since 2010.
The EPCR’s director general, Vincent Gaillard, confirmed his organisation has not yet been approached by CVC and has called on stakeholders to underline their commitment to Europe early in the new year.
“We need to have some certainty for the direction of the tournament,” he said. “We have received a very clear mandate from the board for the process to be concluded shortly. We are discussing whether there might be potential for change or improvement but if the desire is to stay with a 20-team Champions Cup that’s what we’ll do. We’re not in a bad place, we just need to project ourselves into the future.”
With CVC also considering investing in the Top 14 and the Six Nations, however, Gaillard accepts there is an increasing need for clarity in a fast-changing sporting landscape. “Will others come up with plans of their own? Possibly but I just don’t see weakening Europe as a desirable scenario for anyone, not even CVC. From a sporting and commercial standpoint it is a very profitable venture for everyone.
“The most important thing for me is that the financial world should not negatively affect player welfare or sporting calendars. We’re keeping a watchful eye but there is nothing so far that suggests that will be the case.”
EPCR is also optimistic Brexit will not undermine sporting cross-border relationships. “On the basic logistical level there is no immediate concern because a transition period will be involved,”Gaillard said. “On a political level does it change anything? I don’t think it does. I think Britain is part of the future of European rugby. I can hardly see, say, England disappearing from the rugby map any time soon. I think European rugby is part of their future and vice versa, no matter what the politics around it might be.” – Guardian