A reformatting of the Heineken Champions Cup following the cancellation of rounds three and four over the next two weekends is likely to result in Leinster hosting Gloucester and Munster being at home to the Scarlets in a revised knockout round of 16. Ulster and Connacht, meanwhile, would be consigned to playing in the last 16 of the European Challenge Cup.
The remaining two rounds of pool matches in both European club tournaments have, as expected, been formally called off by the tournament organisers EPCR.
This follows a formal directive from the French Government to the Top 14 clubs via the LNR (Ligue Nationale de Rugby) not to take part in cross-border matches with teams in the United Kingdom after they had previously merely advised them not to so last Saturday.
An EPCR statement on Monday evening confirmed that both competitions had been temporarily suspended.
“Following a directive from the French authorities that the participation of Top 14 clubs in the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup at the current time constitutes too great a public health risk, EPCR has no choice but to announce today (Monday, 11 January) that the 2020/21 tournaments are temporarily suspended.
“EPCR and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby took part in a meeting by audio conference last week with representatives of the French ministries of the Interior, Health and Sport, as well as of the President’s office.
“Notable updates to EPCR’s COVID-19 protocols were presented to the French authorities, including the addition of PCR tests no earlier than three days before matches in the tournaments, conforming to French government guidelines and supplementing the existing, meticulous contact tracing measures put in place with a view to limiting the risk of transmission.
“Against the backdrop of the recent detection of a new strain of coronavirus, the French government has directed that French clubs postpone their participation in EPCR’s tournaments for the month of January, both for matches scheduled in France and for those due to be played in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
“On the basis of this directive, EPCR had no choice but to temporarily suspend the pool stage of the Heineken Champions Cup and the preliminary stage of the Challenge Cup.
“While respecting all further directives by governments and local authorities, and prioritising the health and welfare of players and club staff, EPCR, in conjunction with its shareholder leagues and unions, remains committed to trying to find a solution which will enable it to resume and complete the tournaments as soon as practicable.
“EPCR will be making no further comment at the present time.”
There being no free dates in a congested calendar and, as things stand, the EPCR now have, essentially, two options. One of these would be to reschedule rounds three and four for the dates of the two-legged quarter-finals, which would be scrapped, and instead the top two in each pool would advance to the semi-finals.
The other, more likely option, would be to cancel the third and fourth rounds and, instead of two-legged quarter-finals, play a knockout round of 16 before one-legged quarter-finals and then the semi-finals and a final.
This would utilise the four remaining weekends set aside for the European tournaments in April and May and, with the last four in each pool redirected into a Challenge Cup round of 16, this would also ensure at least one more game for each of the 24 teams in the Champions Cup.
This would also be seen as a fairer means of reformatting the tournament in many ways rather than ending the pool stages and progressing to two-legged quarter-finals, with only the top four in each pool advancing. For example, it would additionally punish Exeter for being unable to fulfill their fixture against Toulouse by effectively knocking the tournament holders out of the competition after winning the only match they played.
This proposal is believed to be the favoured option of the French clubs and is likely to be adopted rather than the top four in each pool advancing to two-legged quarter-finals.
If that were to come to pass, then the top four in Pool A would host the teams ranked fifth to eighth in Pool B and vice versa based on current standings, i.e. 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6 and 4 v 5.
In that scenario, the round of 16 would read like this: Leinster v Gloucester, Wasps v Exeter, Bordeaux-Begles v Bristol, La Rochelle v Clermont, Lyon v Sale Sharks, Racing 92 v Toulon, Toulouse v Edinburgh and Munster v Scarlets.
Ulster and Connacht would go into the Challenge Cup, most probably as the first and second ranked teams of the eight remaining in the Champions Cup. The top eight as things stand in the Challenge Cup would most likely have home advantage, meaning the last 16 could read like this: London Irish v Glasgow, Ospreys v Harlequins, Cardiff v Dragons, Leicester v Montpellier, Zebre v Bath, Agen v Northampton, Benetton v Connacht and Newcastle v Ulster.
As for the immediate consequences of there being no third and fourth round matches in the European competitions, it is not expected that Pro14 matches will fill the void next weekend. An indicator was Leinster suspending all media activity this week although it is likely that the previously postponed St Stephen’s Day Munster v Leinster match at Thomond Park will be rescheduled for Saturday week.
Meanwhile talks continued between the French Government and the Six Nations as the organisers remained hopeful that tightened Covid-19 protocols will ensure the tournament will start as scheduled on February 6th.
The FFR President Bernard Laporte, himself a former French minister for sport, has also been in dialogue with the French government and remains confident that the 2021 tournament will go ahead as scheduled. The first round kicks off on Saturday, February 6th, when Italy host France and England are at home to Scotland. Ireland’s first game is away to Wales the next day.
As well as twice-weekly testing, the second being conducted three days before match days, the tournament organisers can point to the successful completion of the four rearranged matches in the 2020 Six Nations as well as the Autumn Nations Cup – save for the outbreak of Covid-19 in the Fijian squad which caused the cancellation of their three pool games.
The same six squads can operate in a bio-secure bubble as they did for those four games at the end of October and in the ensuing Autumn Nations Cup. What’s more there will only be one French team competing and, as their first two games are away to Italy and Ireland followed by a visit from Scotland, France’s first trip to Britain is not until they face England at Twickenham in round four on March 13th.
The likelihood is that the 2021 Womens Six Nations and under-20s Six Nations will both be postponed, with the former to be held in an April/May window, and the latter in early summer.