he shape of both this season’s European club competitions is set for a radical makeover with the group stages poised to be abandoned and the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup proceeding straight to a 16-team knockout phase.
Following the cancellation of the second half of group fixtures this month because of cross-border travel concerns, the tournament organisers now have only four available weekends left at their disposal and are preparing to revert to a sudden-death format.
What has not yet been entirely finalised is the precise manner in which the top 16 Champions Cup sides – comprising the leading eight clubs in each section after the opening two rounds – will be drawn against each other. At first glance it would seem to make sense for the top four sides in Pool A to host the teams ranked fifth to eighth in Pool B and vice versa in the familiar order – 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6, 4 v 5 – used in past tournaments.
If so the round of 16 would read: Leinster v Gloucester, Wasps v Exeter, Bordeaux-Bègles v Bristol, La Rochelle v Clermont, Lyon v Sale, Racing 92 v Toulon, Toulouse v Edinburgh and Munster v Scarlets. In the Challenge Cup, with the bottom eight Champions Cup sides dropping down, the lineup could read: London Irish v Glasgow, Ospreys v Harlequins, Cardiff v Dragons, Leicester v Montpellier, Zebre v Bath, Agen v Northampton, Benetton v Connacht and Newcastle v Ulster.
Discussions are still continuing, however, with some within EPCR favouring the idea of the round of 16 initially pairing sides against opponents from their existing group. This, however, would mean Lyon facing Gloucester and Munster playing Clermont despite the sides having previously clashed before Christmas. Under this system Leinster would be drawn against Sale, Wasps would host Toulon and Bristol and Exeter would be required to travel to French giants Toulouse and Racing 92 respectively.
Final confirmation is anticipated this month as tournament officials seek to restore some fixture list clarity and deliver a meaningful competition despite recent Covid-19 issues. Four Champions Cup matches had to be cancelled before Christmas, with 28-0 “wins” declared, and rising infection rates across Europe eventually saw the tournament officially halted on Monday. “We’ve had to stand down for two weeks but we’ll survive,” said Simon Halliday, the EPCR chairman. “We’re just trying to make the most of it and be as fair as humanly possible.”