If you weren’t confused before about the Champions Cup . . . you will be now

Winding road to a home semi-final involves a number of rather confusing permutations

Saracens’ ‘prize’ for beating the top seeds away in last season’s quarter-final was a semi-final  at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in St Etienne against Clermont. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Saracens’ ‘prize’ for beating the top seeds away in last season’s quarter-final was a semi-final at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in St Etienne against Clermont. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

 

The semi-final draw is no longer part of rugby’s European Cup. Even with the traditional quirks of the competition – the minnows; the back to back fixtures; the varied inclinations of the French towards the merits of foreign travel – having semi-final home advantage decided at random before the quarter-finals had kicked off was something that has never sat quite right.

From this season this will change, with a wrinkle.

“With a semi-final draw there was less of a chance of rewarding performance” said an EPC Rugby spokesperson.

“An example last year would have been, at the end of the pool stage the top-ranked team Racing 92 played the eighth-ranked team Saracens in a quarter-final. Saracens won, yet still had been drawn in an away semi-final.”

New system

LeinsterClermont

“Trying to explain it theoretically, it’s almost impossible to do it concisely”, said the spokesperson. Challenge accepted, said the Irish Times.

Fifth and sixth seeds will guarantee a semi-final in their home country if they win their quarter-finals.

First or eighth seed secures home advantage unless the fifth seed wins.

Second Captains

Second or seventh seed secures home advantage unless the sixth seed wins.

Third and fourth seeds cannot gain home country advantage.

The odd wrinkle in all of this is the treatment of third and fourth seeds who, despite winning their pools, will not be able to gain home country advantage in a semi-final, versus the fifth and sixth seeds who would guarantee themselves a semi-final in their own country should they prevail in an away semi-final.

One alternative might be to have an open draw, or to base everything on the seedings after the pool stages. None would be perfect, and this one at least has some potential for an added layer of drama during the quarter-final weekend.

Few sports remain the same over time. Rugby tinkers quite a lot with laws, and this season in the Principality Premiership in Wales and the National Rugby Championship in Australia there will be six points awarded for a try with penalty goals reduced to two points (drop goals will remain three points).

Bonus points, now implemented in all major rugby competitions with the exception of the Six Nations, are usually earned by scoring four tries or losing by no more than seven points. It’s possible, although rare, for a team to pick up two of them in a high-scoring but close loss. The French leagues stand apart from this, where to earn a losing bonus point a team must finish within no more than five points, and to gain a try bonus point a team must have scored three more tries than their opponent.

Dr. Niven Winchester is an economist based in MIT. The New Zealander’s focus is primarily on climate policy but he has a side interest in the optimization of points allocation in sport, having authored papers on the subject relating to rugby, Australian Rules football and the NFL. Using regression analyses to find statistically significant associations between bonus points and strong teams, his conclusions have pointed towards the solution used in France as the best combination of associating bonus points with strong teams while keeping them somewhat attainable.

Absolute bonus

Champions Cup

Winchester said the advantage of the three-try net bonus to the four try absolute bonus “comes through in any data I’ve looked at, from Six Nations to Super Rugby. You can be a weak team and get a four-try bonus. An example I use is, if you’re getting tonked by 40 points with 20 minutes to go, and the other guys rest all their key players and the game becomes sloppy, then you might sneak a couple of late tries but you still lost by 30 points.”

Back to reality, and a note for Connacht fans.

The playoff system has been jettisoned for this season’s Challenge Cup with the winners to qualify for the 2016/17 Champions Cup as of right.

“If that club has already qualified through its league position it will bring the next-best ranked club in its league that isn’t qualified in with it”, said an EPC Rugby spokesperson.

Will it be back to the playoff system next time around?

“That has not been absolutely decided”, said the spokesperson. To hear that this is under review will be good news to many ears.

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