THE Heineken Champions Cup will have a new format in the coming season, with more teams competing, but fewer games being played at the pool stage. The convoluted new arrangement will see 24 teams – eight each from the French Top 14, the English Premiership and the PRO14, including Edinburgh and Glasgow – divided into two pools of 12, with teams playing just four games each instead of the current six before proceeding to the quarter-finals.
Teams will be ranked according to their final placings in the 2019-20 season, including the knockout phases of their leagues, and then divided into four tiers before being split into the two pools. In each pool, each Tier One team will play home and away against two of the Tier Four teams, with the same process taking place for Tiers Two and Three. Clubs from the same league cannot meet in the pool stage.
After those four weekends of fixtures, the top four in each pool will qualify for the last eight. Clubs ranked five to eight in the pools will compete in the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup, which will begin with a single-pool format including the remaining 14 clubs from the three leagues – six from the French Top 14 and four each from the PRO14 and the English Premiership.
The two PRO14 finalists will be in Tier One, and the two losing semi-finalists in Tier Two, meaning Edinburgh’s seeding depends on the outcome of their semi against Ulster on Saturday. Meanwhile, after initially saying yesterday that Glasgow would be alongside Scarlets in Tier Three as those two clubs were third in their respective conferences, PRO14 later updated their ruling to state that the Warriors will be in Tier Four.
PRO14 decided that, in the case of those teams who did not reach the play-offs, the rankings should be determined by where they stood when play was suspended after 13 games, meaning that Glasgow’s two derby results were not taken into account. Connacht now join Scarlets in the third tier, while the Warriors are grouped with Dragons.
Should they be in the top tier, Edinburgh could find themselves playing against the teams ranked either seventh or eighth in England and France. Harlequins and Gloucester currently fill those places south of the Border, while Toulouse and Montpellier finished seventh and eighth in last season’s Top 14. As a Tier Three team, Glasgow could be drawn against either Racing and Toulon and Bristol or Wasps presuming those four all hold on to their Tier Two status.
However, the final rankings for the draw will only be confirmed once the current Champions Cup and Challenge Cup campaigns, and the current English league season, all come to an end. The winners of the Champions Cup will be ranked second in their league unless they are already ranked first: either way, they will be a Tier One team. The winners of the Challenge Cup will take the place of the eighth-placed team in their league if they have not already qualified for the Champions Cup by virtue of their league position.
The seeding format for the draw is similar to that of previous years, although the fact that the top tier plays only the bottom tier gives the most highly-ranked teams a greater advantage than before. The format is intended to be in operation for the coming season only, and has been designed to address the challenges of the Covid pandemic, according to organisers.
The season will start on the weekend of 12 December, and the finals of both Cups will be played in Marseille – which would have been the original venue for this season’s finals – on the weekend of 20-21 May. Meanwhile, this season’s competitions resume later this month at the quarter-final, with Edinburgh travelling to Bordeaux in the Challenge Cup. Glasgow failed to qualify for the last eight of the Champions Cup.
Heineken Champions Cup qualified teams
PRO14: Leinster, Edinburgh, Ulster, Munster, Scarlets, Glasgow Warriors, Connacht, Dragons. (Rankings to be confirmed at end of current season).
Top 14: Bordeaux-Begles, Lyon, Racing 92, Toulon, La Rochelle, Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, Montpellier or Castres.
Premiership: To be confirmed once current season ends.
Challenge Cup qualified teams
PRO14: Benetton, Cardiff, Zebre, Ospreys.
Top 14: Bayonne, Castres, Brive, Pau, Agen, Stade Francais.
Premiership: Newcastle Falcons (promoted from Championship) plus three others to be confirmed.