Gerry Thornley: French sides again look best placed to succeed on European stage

The Top 14 sides go into the opening rounds of the Champions Cup having played a dozen game

Toulouse’s Pita Ahki is spayed with champagne by team-mate and captain Antoine Dupont after the victory over La Rochelle in the Heineken Champions Cup Final at  Twickenham in May. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Toulouse’s Pita Ahki is spayed with champagne by team-mate and captain Antoine Dupont after the victory over La Rochelle in the Heineken Champions Cup Final at Twickenham in May. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

The Heineken Champions Cup returns if not with its customary bang, then with a good deal more than a whimper as well, not least hereabouts. Not for the first time, one senses the Irish provinces are more invested in the European ideal than any of their counterparts.

On Saturday,  Leinster, the last non-English or French winners four seasons ago and the only winners outside of the Premiership and Top 14 in the last 13 seasons, lead the Irish/Celtic charge once again before an inconsistent Ulster pitch up in the Stade Michelin bear pit against a Clermont side in transition.

On Sunday, Connacht will stay true to their beliefs in a must-win game and a contrast of styles at home to Stade Francais while come hell or high water Munster, ever the drama kings, will seek to make a virtue out of adversity when they launch their campaign in Coventry.

Whatever the thinking elsewhere, for the Irish teams and their supporters, this is where they want to be.

All of the quartet know that there is less margin for error than ever.

The EPCR have again adopted the Covid-enforced, condensed, pool format of last season, meaning a later start and a quicker four-game sprint to the knock-out stages, with two rounds over the coming weekends and another two in January.

And that’s it. No opening October salvos, no back-to-back rounds. Lose one game and some might even be tempted to throw their hat at it. Lose two and there’s a mountain to climb.

This is not the format which the Irish provinces voted for, but as ever whatever Premier Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby want, they get, whether or not it’s for the better of the tournament.

The four-game pool format suits them better. It’s less of an inconvenience to their domestic marathons, while it also preserves the primacy of the English Premiership (expanded to 13 teams and so with four extra rounds) and French championships. Witness the European finals before prolonged finales to the Premiership and French seasons.

In mitigation, one of the primary Anglo-French motives is to ensure there can be no matches between teams from the same leagues in the pool stages. This gives the Champions Cup more of a European feel and counters against clubs meeting each other four times in the same season.

A two-legged round of 16 also gives the competition a little novelty and increased jeopardy. Hence, the Irish provinces can earn a third home tie by finishing in the top eight of either pool.

As last season’s trial run was cut short after two rounds, there is no yardstick to go by. Two wins, especially with a couple of bonus points, ie 10 points in total, might be a threshold.

“There will be teams in there who will potentially win two games and still be in the shake-up,” reckoned Stuart Lancaster this week. “You could even win one game and get some bonus points and be in the shake-up, so that’s definitely different.”

Some teams though, not least Leinster, will be aiming for higher than just a top-eight finish. The higher a team finishes, the greater their likelihood of not only a home second leg in the round of 16, but the carrot of a home quarter-final and home country advantage in the semi-finals.

In that sense then, nothing changes, and every point could matter.

Leinster remain the standard bearers in the United Rugby Championship (URC) but the hope must be that more than two others join them in the last 16 this time.

While the formative URC table may be a bit misleading, with six of the current top seven in the Champions Cup, it looks a stronger hand. But therein lies the rub. Five of the URC contingent have played seven matches, while Munster, Cardiff and Scarlets have only played five and have been without a game since October.

By contrast, the more match-hardened Top 14 sides have played a dozen games and the Premiership sides nine or 10.

The French were the dominant force last season and look primed to be so again. Even though La Rochelle, Clermont and Racing have each made stuttering starts, seven of the French entries are among their leading eight domestically.

By contrast, four of the in-form top-eight sides in the Premiership – Saracens, Gloucester, London Irish and Newcastle – are competing in the Challenge Cup, whereas four of that league’s bottom five are in the Champions Cup, namely Wasps, Sale, Pat Lam’s curiously misfiring Bristol and winless Bath.

In all of this, of course, the threat of Covid in these troubled times remains acute, all the more so in a tournament run across six countries. The fall-out from four URC teams being ensnared in South Africa a fortnight ago have already led to the cancellation of the Bristol-Scarlets tie before the tournament even kicked off.

But, it’s back, and with crowds, and it’s rarely disappointed before.

Champions Cup lowdown

How many teams are competing?
The 24 teams, featuring the top eight qualifiers from the URC, Top 14 and Premiership have been divided into two pools of 12 teams.

Each club will play four matches during the pool stage, two at home and two away, with the first rounds played over the next two weekends and the third and fourth rounds in January.

The usual system of four match points for a win, two for a draw and one bonus point for scoring four or more tries and to a club losing by seven points or fewer.

The eight highest-ranked clubs in Pool A and the eight highest-ranked clubs in Pool B will qualify for the round of 16.

The three clubs ranked ninth to 11th in each of the pools will qualify for the round of 16 of the EPCR Challenge Cup.

How does the round of 16 work?
The eight ties will be played over two legs, with the number one -ranked club in Pool A versus the eighth-ranked club in Pool B, on down to fourth in Pool A v fifth in Pool B. The highest ranked clubs will have home advantage in the second leg, with the aggregate winners progressing to the quarter-finals.

The quarter-finals will be played over one match, with the winners of Tie 1 v winners of Tie 5, 7 v 3, 2 v 6 and 8 v 4. The highest-ranked club from the pool stage will have home advantage

Does pool ranking apply in the semi-finals too?
Yes, the highest-ranked clubs from the pool stage will have home country advantage in the semi-finals, so winning a pool could be significant.

All roads lead to where?
The 2022 final will be played in Marseille on Saturday, May 28th, in the Stade Velodrome (kick-off 5.45 local time).

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