Just four pool games, but two-leg quarter-finals in revamped Heineken Champions Cup

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Ireland’s provinces will be in two pools of 12 teams each in Europe next season under an expanded one-off format agreed for the Heineken Champions Cup in 2020-21, it was announced this morning.

Tournament organisers European Professional Club Rugby have sought to provide a workable format for their competition in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and the impact that has had on the still-to-be-completed 2019-20 campaign, not least the abandonment of the Top 14 competition in France, and the curtailment of the Guinness PRO14 to 15 rounds ahead of this weekend’s semi-finals.

Expanding the Champions Cup to 24 teams on an exceptional basis for next season takes that into account given the French situation left an unresolved battle for the top six places that under normal circumstances would qualify for the regular 20-club, five-pool competition.

It also means all four Irish provinces have qualified for the 2020-21 Champions Cup in the format unanimously agreed by the EPCR Board, on which the IRFU has two seats and which will also apply to next season’s Challenge Cup.

The new format is not guaranteed to please everyone, rather it is a compromise to negotiate the path of least resistance as the number of pool matches for each team will be reduced from six to four and therefore mean two fewer home fixtures, a tough blow for the cash-strapped Irish in particular given the sell-out crowds European game can attract here.

The carrot offered by EPCR, however, is that qualification for the knock-out stages will see quarter-finals contested by home and away legs, guaranteeing a home gate for the first time in the latter phase of the competition.

So here’s how it will work, according to EPCR’s statement on Wednesday morning.

The clubs will be divided into two pools of 12 by means of a draw and the tournament will be played over eight weekends with four rounds of matches in the pool stage followed by a knockout stage consisting of home and away quarter-finals. The semi-finals will remain one-match contests with the highest-ranked teams from pool stages given home-country advantage ahead of the final in Marseille on May 22, 2021.

The pool draw will see clubs separated into tiers, and clubs from the same league in the same tier will not be drawn into the same pool. The number one and number two-ranked clubs from each league will be in Tier 1, number three and four in Tier 2, five and six in Tier 3, with seventh and eighth-ranked clubs in Tier 4.

The Tier 1 and the Tier 4 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league, will play one another home and away during the pool stage, as will the Tier 2 and Tier 3 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league.

The four highest-ranked clubs in each pool will qualify for the quarter-finals, and the clubs ranked five to eight in each pool will go into the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup.

Supporters will have to wait for the 2020-21 pool draw until the 2019-20 campaigns are completed, including the current European competitions, in which the quarter-finals are set to be played on the weekend of September 19-20 with the final scheduled for October 17.

It places an added emphasis on prevailing in this weekend’s PRO14 semi-finals with the victors of Leinster v Munster on Friday night and Saturday’s Edinburgh v Ulster clash being awarded Tier 1 status and being matched up with Tier 4 teams in the pool games, while the losers go into Tier 2 and will face Tier 3 teams in Europe when the first round matches get underway on the weekend of December 11/12/13. Based on league points accrued this season, Connacht appear destined for Tier 4.

It also throws up the intriguing possibility of an Irish team in Tier 2 facing Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle in the pool stages, though there needs to be a lot to fall into place for that to happen when the draw is made towards the end of October.

EPCR chairman Simon Halliday said: “With an expanded knockout stage and no repeats of domestic matches during the pool stage, this format creates brand new competitive opportunities for Europe’s elite clubs and their fans.

“In this time of change, the Heineken Champions Cup with its global stars of the game, its passionate supporters and its unique match-day atmosphere undoubtedly remains The One to Win.” 


PRO14: Leinster, Edinburgh, Munster, Ulster, Scarlets, Glasgow Warriors, Connacht, Dragons (rankings confirmed at conclusion of current season) 

TOP 14: Bordeaux-Bègles, Lyon, Racing 92, RC Toulon, La Rochelle, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, *Montpellier or Castres Olympique 

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