The 2018-19 Heineken Champions Cup: all you need to know
European rugby’s heavyweights are ready to dust off their gloves and slug it out once again
Ulster’s Jordi Murphy, Leinster’s Johnny Sexton and Munster’s Peter O’Mahony. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The nights are drawing in. There’s a bit of crisp in the air. The summer of love is over. Those aching, yawning few months of heat - those hours spent blissfully in the beer garden - are a distant memory.
Over the past month Europe’s heavyweights have been shaking off the rust. The continent’s finest machines are creaking into action. The gears are starting to click and the engines beginning to whir.
The Heineken Cup is back.
Between Friday October 12th and Saturday May 11th 20 of the best teams on the planet will slug it out in a bid to be crowned champions of Europe. The ultimate accolade.
And it all begins in Dublin, as Leinster - four stars proudly on their chests - start their title defence against Wasps.
But before the first ball is kicked under the Friday night lights, here is all you need to know about Heineken Champions Cup.
What is it?
20 teams from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and France - in theory, the cream of the domestic crop - bidding to be named European champions.
When did it start?
This is the 24th instalment of the competition, after its inception in the 1995-96 season.
How does it work?
The teams are split into five pools of four. Each team play one another home and away, with the top team in each pool progressing into the quarter-finals. They are then joined by three highest ranking second-placed sides across the three pools. The quarter-finals are seeded - meaning the four pool winners with the most points will earn potentially vital home advantage in the last eight. Semi-finals follow before the final at Newcastle’s St James’ Park.
Sorry, St James’ Park?
Last year’s final broke the mould, with Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés hosting the showpiece. The 2018-19 season follows suit, with tournament reaching its crescendo at Newcastle United’s famous old football ground.
I thought it was called the Champions Cup these days?
Well, it was. But this season Heineken have returned as chief sponsors, giving us the rebranded Heineken Champions Cup. In fairness, it’s always been the Heineken Cup - it just sounds right, doesn’t it?
When does it start?
The first round of fixtures begin on the weekend of Friday October 12th.
And what happens after that?
The dates for each round are as follows:
Round one: October 12th/13th/14th
Round two: October 19th/20th/21st
Round three: November 7th/8th/9th
Round four: December 14th/15th/16th
Round five: January 11th/12th/13th
Round six: January 18th/19th/20th
Quarter-finals: March 29th/30th/31st
Semi-finals: April 19th/20th/21st
Final: May 11th
Who’s in it?
Ireland - Leinster, Munster, Ulster
England - Bath, Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester, Leicester Tigers, Newcastle Falcons, Saracens, Wasps
France - Castres, Lyon, Montpellier, Racing 92, Toulon, Toulouse
Scotland - Edinburgh, Glasgiw Warriors
Wales - Cardiff Blues, Scarlets
This is the first season where it hasn’t been a prerequisite for there to be an Italian side in the competition, with the seven Pro14 representatives all being decided on merit. An elitist move, but one which strengthens the tournament somewhat.
What are the pools?
Pool one - Bath, Leinster, Toulouse, Wasps
Pool two - Castres , Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester, Munster
Pool three - Cardiff Blues, Glasgow Warriors, Lyon, Saracens
Pool four - Leicester Tigers, Racing 92, Scarlets, Ulster
Pool five - Edinburgh, Montpellier, Newcastle Falcons, Toulon
Who are the defending champions?
Leinster were supreme last season as they conquered all before them domestically and on the continent.
Who’s won it the most?
Leinster’s victory last term put them level on four titles with the mighty Stade Toulousain - for so long the benchmark of European rugby. Munster have won it twice, while Ulster lifted the trophy in 1999.
Who’s going to win it this year?
Leinster are the bookies favourites to defend their crown at 2-1. The rest of the field are priced as follows:
Exeter Chiefs 15-2
Racing 92 10-1
How can I watch it?
Every fixture is being televised - but there’s good news. This season, you can watch some of the games without needing a subscription to BT Sport.
You mean, free to air rugby?
You bet. Watching sport has become an increasingly complicated and expensive business. But in a refreshing move, one game from each round of this year’s competition will be shown on terrestrial television, as well as one quarter-final, one semi-final and the final. In Ireland TV3/Virgin Media One have the rights, while in the UK you can watch on Channel 4. What a time to be alive.
So which games can I watch for free?
Round one: Sat, Oct 13th: Bath v Toulouse (1.0pm).
Round two: Sat, Oct 20th: Munster v Gloucester (1.0pm).
Round three: Sat, Dec 8th, Exeter v Gloucester (1.0pm).
Round four: Sat, Dec 15th: Cardiff v Saracens (1.0pm).
Round five: Sat, Jan 12th: Leinster v Toulouse (1.0pm).
Round six: To be confirmed.
Not bad, eh?
I can’t wait to watch today’s match legally, rather than streaming it on my laptop!
At least they’ll finally see some silverware at St James’ Park. . .