European club rugby enters relatively unchartered territory over the next two weekends with the advent of the two-legged round of 16 in the Heineken Champions Cup.
This concept had been agreed upon after the effects of Covid disrupted the pool stages last season as a fairer means of ensuring 16 rather than eight teams progressed to an expanded knock-out stages, whereupon the pandemic struck again and the round of 16 was reduced to straight knock-out ties.
The most interesting aspect of the new dynamic will be in the endgame of the first legs. Where before a home team winning by a score might have tried to park the bus, now they might be tempted to press on in order to earn a bigger lead for the away second leg. By the same token, an away team losing by less than a score in this weekend’s first legs might think it’s not such a bad result, where previously they’d have been fighting for their lives.
Having the second legs at home would appear to be an advantage, and the higher ranked teams in the pool stages were rewarded accordingly. Certainly this would be true of any last-16 tie which finishes level on aggregate over two legs, as the sides would then play extra-time.
For the first time ever, the four Irish provinces have reached the knock-out stages, but with the draw also mapped out until the final in Marseilles, it so happens that the quartet are all in the same, and arguably tougher, half of the draw given the presence of Toulouse (double winners last season), Exeter (double winners two seasons ago) and a rejuvenated Leicester, Premiership pacesetters.
Ulster are away to Toulouse in Le Stadium tomorrow before hosting the four-time winners in Belfast seven days later, and if they advance they will be guaranteed a home quarter-final against Munster or Exeter. If Munster overcome Exeter, they will be away to Ulster or at home to Toulouse.
If Leinster overcome Connacht to reach the quarter-finals they will be away to Leicester or at home to Clermont. Similarly if Connacht overcome Leinster, they will be away to Leicester or at home to Clermont.
Conceivably therefore, as well the Connacht-Leinster round of 16 tie, there could also be all-Irish encounters in the quarter-finals and semi-finals.
The two-legged concept has also led to a surfeit of repeat meetings, with Connacht and Leinster clashing three times in four weeks, while last week’s pitchside tete-a-tete between Bordeaux’s Christophe Urios (who has ‘previous’) and La Rochelle’s Ronan O’Gara in the Top 14 will now be follow by their two-legged round of 16 tie.
Likewise, Racing 92 and Stade Francais played the first of a Parisian trilogy last week, and we know what they say about familiarity.
In any event, it will be interesting to see if this two-legged concept is regarded as a success. Most likely it will diminish the first legs while heightening the jeopardy some, if not all, of the second legs
Heineken Champions Cup - Round of 16 first leg
Friday 8th April
Connacht Rugby v Leinster Rugby, The Sportsground (8pm) - BT Sport
Saturday 9th April
Sale Sharks v Bristol Bears, AJ Bell Stadium (1.30pm) - Channel 4 / Virgin Media / BT Sport
Union Bordeaux-Bègles v Stade Rochelais, Stade Chaban-Delmas (2pm local/1pm Irish) - BT Sport
Stade Toulousain v Ulster Rugby, Le Stadium (4.15/3.15pm Irish time)- BT Sport
Exeter Chiefs v Munster Rugby, Sandy Park (5.30pm) - BT Sport
Stade Francais Paris v Racing 92, Stade Jean Bouin (6.30pm local/5.30pm Irish) - BT Sport
Sunday 10th April
Montpellier Hérault Rugby v Harlequins, GGL Stadium (2pm local/1pmIrish) - BT Sport
ASM Clermont Auvergne v Leicester Tigers, Stade Marcel-Michelin (4.15pm local/3.15pm Irish) - BT Sport
Heineken Champions Cup - Round of 16 second leg
Friday 15th April
Leinster Rugby v Connacht Rugby, Aviva Stadium (5.30pm) - BT Sport
Bristol Bears v Sale Sharks, Ashton Gate (8pm) - BT Sport
Saturday 16th April
Harlequins v Montpellier Hérault Rugby, Twickenham Stoop (12.30pm) - Channel 4 / Virgin Media / BT Sport
Munster Rugby v Exeter Chiefs, Thomond Park (3pm) - BT Sport
Stade Rochelais v Union Bordeaux-Bégles, Stade Marcel Deflandre (4pm local/3pm Irish) - BT Sport
Leicester Tigers v ASM Clermont Auvergne, Welford Road (5.30pm) - BT Sport
Ulster Rugby v Stade Toulousain, Kingspan Stadium (8pm) - BT Sport
Sunday 17th April
Racing 92 v Stade Francais Paris, Paris La Défense Arena (4.30pm local time/3.30pm Irish) - BT Sport
Quarter-finals - 6/7/8 May
The quarter-finals will be played over one match, and the highest-ranked clubs from the pool stage will have home venue advantage as follows:
QF 1: Racing 92 (A1) or Stade Francais (B8) v Bristol Bears (B4) or Sale Sharks (A5)
QF 2: Harlequins (B2) or Montpellier (A7) v Stade Rochelais (A3) or Bordeaux-Bègles (B6)
QF 3: Ulster (A2) or Stade Toulousain (B7) v Munster (B3) or Exeter Chiefs (A6)
QF 4: Leicester Tigers (B1) or Clermont (A8) v Leinster (A4) or Connacht (B5)
Semi-finals - 13th/14th/15th May
The semi-finals will be played over one match, and the highest-ranked clubs from the pool stage will have either home country advantage or home venue advantage (TBC) as follows:
SF 1: Winner QF 1 v Winner QF 2
SF 2: Winner QF 3 v Winner QF 4
2022 Heineken Champions Cup final: Saturday, 28 May; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille (5.45pm local time/4.45pm Irish).