Where and how Champions Cup knockout phases will be played still up in the air
Final set for Marseille but details of fixtures still unclear due to lingering coronavirus threat
Leinster celebrate their Champions Cup triumph in Bilbao in 2018. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
The Champions Cup quarter-finals are reset for the weekend of September 18th-20th with defending champions Saracens due in Dublin while Ulster travel to Toulouse.
With the ‘when’ almost confirmed – tournament organisers EPCR promise to supply exact dates and times “in the near future” – the ‘where’ and ‘how’ games can be played still needs figuring out.
The Champions Cup semi-finals will take place September 25th, 26th and 27th with the final scheduled for Saturday October 17th, ideally in Marseille.
“EPCR remains committed to staging the [final] in Marseille, however, the situation is under review in light of public gathering and international travel restrictions which might be in place at the time of the finals.
“EPCR and the local organising committee in Marseille intend to clarify the position regarding the finals, including details of ticket refunds where applicable, as soon as possible.”
Come September, Ulster might still require a non-restrictive travel corridor between the UK and France. The Irish Government’s “air bridges” plan, between other countries which have brought coronavirus under control, would enable teams and potentially supporters to avoid the 14-day post travel quarantine currently in place. Air bridges are being designed to allow Irish tourists to go on foreign holidays from July 9th.
The EPCR board, which includes IRFU chief executive Philip Browne and former national team manager Mick Kearney, met on Wednesday to agree dates for the Champions Cup to conclude and restart the 2020/21 season on December 11th.
Supporters will not be in attendance when Leinster versus Munster reignites the Pro 14 on August 22nd at the Aviva Stadium.
However, stadium director Martin Murphy recently stated a reduction in capacity from 51,700 to 18,500 would be possible if social distancing is one metre, as is already the case in England. This would generate over €1 million in gate receipts for the Saracens v Leinster quarter-final.
Completing the Champions Cup and restarting next season could happen in between a novel autumn Six Nations. Again, this requires several governments to relax travel restrictions.
One certainty is the personnel will differ significantly from last year’s final in Newcastle as Saracens travel to Dublin without 17 players – including departed England international George Kruis and Wallaby lock Will Skelton – following forced relegation from the Premiership and a £5 million fine for breaching salary cap rules.
Senior figures Owen Farrell, Maro Itoje and the Vunipola brothers, whose extra deals went to the core of the investigation into the disgraced English champions, are staying at the club.
In contrast, Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden, having signed contract extensions until October, can expect to finish their careers in a blue jersey.
Kearney, Leinster’s most decorated player, has yet to reveal his future, be it inside or outside the sport, but McFadden has already announced his retirement.
Garry Ringrose was not listed among yesterday’s 28 deals released by the province, although the 25-year-old is believed to have signed a two-year central contract that presumably makes him one of Irish rugby’s highest earners.
James Ryan has been promoted to national status while Devin Toner moves in the opposite direction and onto Leinster’s payroll.
Dan Leavy also received an extension, which indicates the flanker’s 18-month recovery from a horrendous leg injury remains on track.
Five players from traditional school sources have graduated from the academy to the senior panel.
“It is always a hugely special day for them, their families and their clubs and schools so I would like to congratulate Ryan [Baird], Harry [Byrne], Jack [Dunne], Tommy [O’Brien] and Dan [Sheehan],” said Leinster coach Leo Cullen.
Baird, Byrne and Dunne went to St Michael’s, O’Brien, who captained the Ireland under-20s in 2018, attended Blackrock and Sheehan went to Clongowes Wood College.
Sheehan effectively replaces Bryan Byrne, who joined Bristol on loan in February. Unfortunately Byrne was on the departures’ list when Pat Lam recently finalised his squad for 2021. Same goes for another former Leinster man, Ian Madigan, who has switched to Belfast.
Michael Bent, the 34-year-old New Zealand born tighthead prop, appears to have profited from the exodus of young talent as Jack Aungier moves to Connacht and Roman Salanoa joins Munster.
Joe Tomane (Dragons) and Oisín Dowling (Connacht) have found new homes but the destination of Gavin Mullin – son of Ireland’s former record try scorer Brendan – and winger Barry Daly remains unclear.
Daly, who was the Pro 14’s top try scorer in 2018 only to be hampered by injuries ever since, could end up playing Major League Rugby in America while Mullin previously stated his alternative job would be “attorney general.” Tongue in cheek perhaps but at least he’s aiming high.
Amended Champions Cup and Challenge Cup dates
Quarter-finals: weekend of 18/19/20 September
ASM Clermont Auvergne v Racing 92, Stade Michel Michelin - BT Sports
Toulouse v Ulster, Le Stadium Toulouse - BT Sports and Virgin Media
Exeter Chiefs v Northampton, Sandy Park - BT Sports
Leinster v Saracens, Aviva stadium - BT Sports
Semi-finals: weekend of 25/26/27 September
Challenge Cup final: Friday, 16 October
Heineken Champions Cup final: Saturday, 17 October
Start of 2020/21 season: weekend of 11/12/13 December