Gerry Thornley: Pluses and minuses in one-off Champions Cup format
With 16 teams set to exit after the pool stages, dead rubbers could be an issue
The 2020-2021 Champions Cup will involve 24 teams, including all four Irish provinces. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The convoluted one-off format for the 2020-21 Heineken Champions Cup, which contrives to be both expanded to 24 teams and abbreviated to eight match weekends, at least ensures the presence of all four Irish provinces in the 24-team competition.
The Irish quartet, along with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Scarlets and the Dragons, will be the eight qualifiers from the Guinness Pro14, along with the top eight ranked sides from the Top 14 and Premiership.
The draw, to be made in late October following the Premiership final on the 24th of that month, will be divided into four ‘tiers’ of six teams apiece. Hence, this adds immediate consequences for this weekend’s Leinster-Munster and Edinburgh-Ulster Pro14 semi-finals. In addition to competing for a place in the final a week later, the two semi-final winners will qualify as Tier 1 sides in the draw for the 2020-21 Champions Cup, whereas the beaten semi-finalists will be go into Tier 2.
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.
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.
At least this one-off format ensures teams from the same league cannot face each other in the pool stages, thus ensuring two Pro14 teams will not be meeting other twice in Europe as well. In other words, each of the four Irish provinces will play an English team home and away, and a French team home and away.
Hypothetically, although Munster and Ulster can earn a Tier 1 status by winning their semi-finals, as things stand the draw would look like this: Tier 1: Leinster, Edinburgh, Bordeaux-Bègles, Lyon, Exeter and Sale. Tier 2: Munster, Ulster, Racing 92, Toulon, Bristol and Wasps. Tier 3: Scarlets, Glasgow, La Rochelle, Clermont, Bath and Northampton. Tier 4: Connacht, Dragons, Toulouse, Montpellier, Harlequins and Gloucester.
The advantages of earning a place in a higher tier could be negligible when it comes to facing one of the French sides. Unless one of Racing 92, Clermont or Toulouse wins the 2019-20 Champions Cup, thereby bumping them up to a number two ranking, the French seeding is based on a domestic championship that was abandoned after 17 of its scheduled 26 rounds.
For example, 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, as well as either Harlequins or Gloucester as things stand.
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 unless one of the French heavyweights wins the 2019-20 Champions Cup, they will play either Bordeaux-Bègles or Lyon, as well as an English side (potentially Exeter or Sale), and thus avoid Racing, Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse.
With only four pool games apiece, the opening two rounds will take place in December, and the final two rounds in January. The top four in the respective pools will advance to the quarter-finals.
The new, one-off format is liable to baffle supporters, albeit it will probably start to make more sense as it progresses, and it will disappoint the provinces as it reduces the number of home games in the pool stages from three to two.
However, this is at least offset by the decision to make the quarter-finals two-legged, home-and-away affairs, even if their attractiveness hinges to a large degree on supporters being re-admitted on match days come next March and April. But the reward for qualifying will be a third home match.
Against that, while it will be a welcome relief if we all get to that stage, aside from the absence of the pivotal back-to-back pool games, the format seems to carry an altogether greater risk of teams losing interest if they lose their opening two games come the reverse fixtures in January.
Therein potentially lies the format’s major flaw. In that scenario, there may be singularly unlevel playing fields, all the more so in the scramble for tries and bonus points in the third and final rounds when the increased number of clubs who are out of contention field weakened sides. The luck of the draw, and specifically the order of matches, therefore could be very significant.
Furthermore, with 16 teams destined for a pool exit and many knowing their fate after two or three games, there may also be more dead rubbers.
Perhaps the best aspect therefore about this format is that it is only for one season.
How it will work
The eight highest-ranked teams from the 2019/20 Pro14, Premiership, and Top 14 will qualify.
The 24 clubs will be divided into two pools of 12, with each club playing four games in the pool stage – two at home and two away, against one team each from the other two leagues.
The pool draw, to be made soon after the English Premiership final on October 24th, will have clubs divided into four different ‘tiers’ of six clubs apiece, with two from each of the three leagues.
The number one and number two ranked clubs from each league will be in Tier 1. The number three and number four ranked clubs will be in Tier 2. The number five and six ranked clubs will be in Tier 3, while the number seven and number eight ranked clubs will be in Tier 4.
Tier 1 and Tier 4 clubs drawn in the same pool will play one club each from the other leagues home and away. Tier 2 and Tier 3 clubs drawn in the same pool will also play one club each from the other leagues home and away.
The top four clubs in each pool will qualify for the knockout stages, while the teams who finish in the next four positions in each pool, will go into the last 16 knockout round of the European Challenge Cup.
The quarter-finals will be held over two legs, home and away, based on their final standing in the pools – ie first v fourth, second v third, third v second and fourth v first. The higher ranked sides will play the second legs at home.
The aggregate winners will progress to one-off semi-finals, when the higher ranked sides from the pool stages will have home country advantage.
The final will be held in Marseille on May 22nd, 2021.