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  • Thomas Hancock

How to make ‘Europe’ shine once again

This weekend will see the return of ‘European’ rugby. The Champions and Challenge Cup commence, but over the years one has lost its sparkle and become stale. The other has been cast into the shadows. There really does need to be a continued conscious effort to improve both competitions and bring them back to where they were pre-pandemic.

 

The most talked about and obvious change needs to be the format of the competitions. There has been a slight tweak with the format this year, instead of two pools of twelve there are four pools of six. Each side will still play four games, two home and two away, but instead of just playing two opponents home and away, each side will play four opponents from their pool, the idea is to increase jeopardy. To reach the knockouts of the Champions Cup, the team needs finish at least fourth in the pool. There is therefore still a high probability of qualifying for the next round. This still could dilute the quality of the knockouts and teams can target certain games in the pool stage. To improve this, scrap the round of sixteen and just play the extra pool game against the side from the same league, with the top three seeds in each group gaining some reward here by getting the extra home game. With the top two qualifying for the quarterfinals.

 

The consensus is that most would love to see the old-style pools of four teams and six games, with the back-to-back weekend of playing the same side. It really allowed for story lines and most importantly an extra edge to be created! This absolutely worked and allowed everyone to know where they stood, plus it meant that clubs cannot qualify to the knockouts with one win! The round of sixteen needs to be scrapped because a competition should not be formatted to allow two thirds of the teams to qualify for the next round.

 

Ideally to make the elite competition, the absolute elite, the Champions Cup should be the best twenty teams from the Gallagher Premiership, Top 14 and United Rugby Championship. The winners of both previous seasons Champions and Challenge Cup, the three teams who won their respective leagues and the final fifteen spots to be equally divided across the leagues. If a side for instance has qualified by winning either competition from the previous season and from their league position, then the side finishing 7th from that respected league would qualify. Reverting to the pools of four, the five pool winners and three best placed runners up go through to the next round.

 

This year’s competition looks ridiculous regarding the quality, the fact the Italian sides and to some extent the Welsh sides aren’t just given spots like in the past, there is genuinely tough fixture predictions to make. Throw in the fact that English sides have an improved chance due to a twenty-five per cent reduction in league games and a ‘mid-season’ break during the Six Nations, they can really throw themselves at this competition more than they have in previous years. The Irish and French sides will always be competitive due to how after the national side is next focus for one RFU is ‘Europe’ and the other league has the financial clout to have insane squad depth and quality.


For the Challenge Cup there would be twenty-four teams. The remaining twenty teams from the three main leagues and then to grow the game, a side from each of Georgia, Spain, Portugal and Romania. Who wouldn’t love some winter sun in Portugal? Some will note that the Toyota Cheetahs have not been included in this simply because they do not play in the United Rugby Championship. The train of thought is that the Cheetahs could win the Challenge Cup to then lift the Champions Cup the following season but not play in any of the leagues to qualify, unlikely yes, but a possibility.

 

The Challenge Cup needs to be treated the same as its bigger brother. The fact the fifth placed sides from the Champions Cup will drop into this competition once in the knockout rounds really does devalue the Challenge Cup. It gives a side from the top competition a second chance, when in essence they were not able to compete on the main stage. In this competition there should be six pools of four, the pool winners and the two best placed runners-up qualify for the knockouts. In time it could see a side from Georgia, Spain, Portugal or Romania reach this stage. This is far greater for the game than the fifth worse side in the Champions Cup qualifying for Challenge Cup quarterfinals.

 

The broadcasting of the Challenge Cup has moved mainly to a streaming platform and only gets picked up by a main broadcaster once the business end of the competition has been reached. Although most people may not be interested in watching Gloucester’s trip to Tbilisi to take on the Black Lions at midday on a Saturday in Europe’s second competition, but then the same could be said for watching Cardiff host Bath at 8pm on a Saturday evening. There are so many options on plus channels or red buttons that the Challenge Cup could be on the same broadcaster or get creative and follow suit of the English cricket counties. Where its free for even non-members to watch a live stream of the game. Clubs could come together when the sides are playing each other and offer a member of either club the chance to watch via a live stream. Supporters are often thought about last, given that they would be the first to go to great lengths to watch their beloved club, even during tough periods. Not enough is being done to look after them. To extend this point, in the knockouts why give such short notice of the scheduling of games.

 

Last season saw a week between the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals, on top of that, the weekend of the quarterfinals was on Easter weekend. This was the business part of a competition and it felt shoehorned into this weekend. Plus think of the supporters, imagine trying to plan a trip away within a matter of days and over Easter weekend, everything would have inflated prices due to the time of year. No wonder the Aviva Stadium was only half filled for Leinster’s game versus Leicester. Additionally, three of the four quarterfinals were far from competitive. Leinster and Toulouse put fifty points on their opponents and Exeter stuck forty on the Stormers. To give some credit to organisers this season, there has been an effort to nail down kick off times for all pool games to allow away trips to be planned well in advance.

 

These competitions can become what they once were, there just needs a tweak back to the good old days but also out the box thinking to generate interest across Europe and to keep in mind it’s the supporters who are the main contributors to creating the romantical element that seems to have been lost. Nonetheless it will be intriguing, intense and at times indulging, let the journey begin to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on the weekend of the 24th and 25th of May next year.

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