Champions Cup to feature all four Irish provinces in 24-team tournament

Draw to take place in late October with qualifiers to play home and away quarter-finals

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The Heineken Champions Cup organisers, EPCR, have agreed to new, one-off tournament formats for the 2020/21 season which will, as expected, see their flagship competition expanded to 24 teams, including all four Irish provinces.

This means the top eight teams in each of the qualifying competitions, the Guinness Pro14, Top 14 and Premiership, will compete in the tournament, which will start with the opening two rounds of the pool stages in December to be followed by the final two rounds in January.

Only the eight qualifiers from the Pro14 are as yet decided upon, with this weekend’s four semi-finals, Leinster, Edinburgh, Munster and Ulster to be joined by the Scarlets, Glasgow, Connacht and Dragons.

To reduce the competition by one round there will be only four games in the pool stages as opposed to six.

The 24 clubs will be divided into two pools of 12, with the draw to be made in late October following the Premiership final on the 24th of that month.

For the draw, the 24 qualifiers will be divided into four ‘tiers’. Tier 1 will feature the top two in each of the three leagues. Tier 2 will have the teams ranked third and fourth from their respective leagues. Tier 3 will have the teams ranked fifth and sixth and Tier 4 will be completed by the clubs ranked seventh and eighth.

This weekend’s Pro14 semi-finals are thus given added intrigue in the knowledge that the two winners will be drawn from Tier 1 in the 2020-21 Champions Cup, while the losing semi-finalists will go into Tier 2.

Clubs cannot play another club from the same league in the pool stages and those drawn in Tier 1 will play one Tier 4 team from each of the other two leagues on a home and away basis. Those drawn from Tier 2 will play teams from Tier 3 from the other two leagues on a home and away basis.

Unless a French team wins either of the 2019-20 Champions Cup or Challenge Cup, their eight qualifiers will remain unchanged and in the following order: Bordeaux-Bègles, Lyon, Racing 92, Toulon, La Rochelle, Clermont, Toulouse and Montpellier.

The eight qualifiers from the Premiership are still to be confirmed and their final pecking order won’t be determined until after their knockout stages. But, in whatever order, the eight look like being Exeter, Sale, Bristol, Wasps, Bath, Northampton, Harlequins and Gloucester, who are currently seven points clear of ninth-placed London Irish, with three rounds remaining.

So, for example, as things stand were Leinster, Munster and/or Ulster to secure a Tier 1 ranking, they could play either Toulouse or Montpellier on a home and away basis, and either Harlequins or Gloucester.

Alternatively, this weekend’s losing semi-finalists will be drawn from Tier 2, and as things stand they would play against La Rochelle or Clermont from the Top 14 and Bath or Northampton from the Premiership. Connacht will be in Tier 4, and hence as things stand, will play either Bordeaux-Bègles or Lyon, and Exeter or Sale.

The top four sides in each pool will advance to the quarter-finals and to compensate for the loss of two pool stage matches (effectively the traditional rounds of back-to-back games) the 2020-21 Champions Cup will see the advent of two-legged, home and away quarter-final ties.

The teams which finish first and second in their respective pools will play the clubs which finish fourth and third, and will also have the advantage of playing the second legs at home.

The clubs ranked fifth to eighth in the respective pools will qualify for the round of 16 of the Challenge Cup.

If we ever get there, it will assuredly be a blessed relief as well, for if it’s one thing trying to understand the convoluted new format, it’s quite another endeavouring to explain it.

To further compound matters, there are a few caveats, as any team which wins the 2019-20 Champions Cup would, if ranked lower, become a second seed from their respective league and thus a Tier 1 team.

This would apply, for example, if Racing 92 (currently ranked third), Clermont (ranked sixth) or Toulouse (ranked seventh) won the Champions Cup final next month.

However, this ruling cannot include Saracens, who even if they win this season’s competition would not be able to compete next season as they will be a Championship club.

Furthermore, the winners of the Challenge Cup (if not already qualified via their own league) would become an eighth ranked qualifier from their league. For example, Castres could edge out Montpellier (who finished eighth in the abandoned Top 14) were they to win the Challenge Cup, or Leicester edge out whoever finishes eighth in the Premiership.

All very straightforward really.

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