Champions Cup: The 20 qualifiers for 2020-21 if season doesn’t restart

The point of no return for a resumption of this season is fast approaching

One by one Europe’s premier club rugby tournaments took the inevitable decision to suspend play due to the coronavirus pandemic, the French Top 14 and the English Premiership doing so “until at least April 15th”, a dateline that now seems fanciful in the current climate, while the Pro 14 did so “indefinitely”, a prognosis that offered a more realistic appraisal of the situation.

This followed on from the postponement of four Six Nations matches including Ireland's fixtures against Italy and France as well as those involving England and Italy and Wales and Scotland. The IRFU suspended all rugby in Ireland including matches and training until March 29th but that date will be kicked down the road again shortly.

The All-Ireland League Division 1A final was due to take place on May 9th, but given the pandemic and the backlog of fixtures in the league format of the tournament, it seems probable that no further matches will be played.

EPC Rugby this week announced that the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup quarter-finals, due to take place on the first weekend in April, were postponed.


The statement included the message that: "While respecting all further directives by governments and local authorities, EPCR, in conjunction with the relevant leagues and unions, remains committed to trying to find a solution which will enable it to complete the 2019/20 Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup tournaments at such a time as that aligns with preventative measures undertaken by an overwhelming majority of sport's governing bodies and tournament organisers in Europe. "

Public health and wellbeing supersedes any sporting considerations, a statement to which all parties subscribed and in adhering to that premise it looks like ending any hope of the season resuming at this point.

If there are no further games played this season across the Pro14, Top 14 and English Premiership it will leave a huge mess to untangle financially, but for the purposes of this column, it’s an examination of the qualification process for next season’s Champions Cup.

The most obvious solution for EPC Rugby in adjudicating on the clubs that qualify for European rugby’s premier club tournament in 2020-2021, is to use the current standings across the three domestic leagues; Pro14, Top 14 and English Premiership, from which 19 of the 20 teams qualify automatically by dint of finishing positions, which also directly correlates to seeding.

The Pro14 has seven slots, the three highest ranked clubs from each conference, not including any South African franchises where applicable. Leinster, Ulster and Glasgow Warriors, in that order, lead the way in Conference A while Edinburgh, Munster and Scarlets fill those positions in Conference B.

The seventh place in Europe requires a playoff between the two teams in fourth place in the respective conferences – the Cheetahs aren’t eligible – so the Dragons would face Connacht, a match that would have to take place at some point ahead of the new season.

There are eight rounds remaining in the Pro 14 league format – it doesn't include a number of postponed fixtures from previous rounds involving Italian clubs Benetton and Zebre – and this would be followed two semi-final qualifiers, semi-finals and a final. That's potentially 11 Pro14 fixtures for a club and factoring in three European weekends for a team that reached a European final, that makes 14 matches in total.

It is a similar scenario in the English Premiership, where Exeter Chiefs lead the way, followed by Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears, Northampton Saints, Wasps and Bath in the table, the top six qualifying. There are nine rounds of fixtures to be played, followed by a semi-final and final with three European tournament weekends to be tagged on, a cumulative tally of 14.

The French Top 14, which also sees the top six qualify for Europe next season) has completed 17 of the 26 rounds of fixtures and would required a further three weekends to negotiate the playoffs to the final. Allied to potentially three European weekends, that make a grand total of 15 games.

As things stand, Bordeaux Begles have an eight-point lead over Lyon, who in turn are followed by Racing 92, Toulon, La Rochelle and Clermont Auvergne. The reigning Top 14 champions and Champions Cup quarter-finalists, Toulouse, are currently in seventh place and would therefore miss out on Europe in 2020-2021 if there wasn't another game played this season.

The 20th and final place in next season’s Champions Cup has a strictly defined pecking order under the rules of the tournament.

“In accordance with a decision of the EPCR Board comprising the nine unions, federations and league bodies, the 20th place in the Heineken Champions Cup, provided the club is nominated by its league body, will be determined as follows:

  • i) Heineken Champions Cup winner, if not already qualified;
  • ii) Challenge Cup winner, if not already qualified;
  • iii) Challenge Cup losing finalist, if not already qualified
  • iv) Playoff match between the losing Challenge Cup semi-finalists, if not already qualified;
  • v) Highest ranked non-qualified club by virtue of league position from the same league as the Heineken Champions Cup winner."

Under the premise that no further matches were played this season, the last, number five, seems applicable as an adjudication method and as Saracens are the reigning European champions the final spot would go to the seventh placed team in the English Premiership, Harlequins.

The lead-in time to resume rugby, given that training is currently precluded, would possibly be a couple of weeks, so even by some miracle the season started up again mid-May it wouldn’t finish until August, which would have a knock-on effect in terms of summer Test matches, player welfare, breaks, pre-season training et al.

There is a suggestion that this season may be declared null and void in a Champions and Challenge Cup context and those that qualified for this season's tournament would do remain in situ for the 2020-2021 competition, albeit that the Saracens issue would have to be resolved in that case.

The point of no return for a resumption of this season is fast approaching and something that will have to be addressed definitively sooner rather than later as the draw for next season’s Champions and Challenge Cups is due to take place in July. EPC Rugby will hold a board meeting by conference call next week.

Champions Cup Qualifiers if season ended now

Pro 14

Winner of playoff between Dragons and Connacht

English Premiership

Exeter Chiefs
Sale Sharks
Bristol Bears
Northampton Saints
Harlequins (20th qualifier)

French Top 14

Bordeaux Begles
Racing 92
La Rochelle
Clermont Auvergne

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer