Champions Cup - all you need to know: 'Stonking' live games and big-name players galore

 

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The Independent Online

1. Where do I watch it?

The new Switzerland-based organisers, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), signed with BT and Sky in the UK. There will be live matches aplenty, but some viewers will need to pay twice now, whereas before it was all on Sky.

2. And what do I call it?

Yes, the European Rugby Champions Cup is a bit of a mouthful. EPCR co-director Bruce Craig, who is also the owner of Bath, came up with the name, inspired by Uefa's Champions League. He reckons "Champions Cup" will work for most.

3. So the Heineken Cup has gone?

Yes and no. EPCR's launch in London last Wednesday trumpeted "a new tournament… with a rich 19 years of heritage". Or, to put it another way, the 2013 and 2014 Heineken Cup winners, Toulon, are not defending their trophy but they are looking to win a third European title in a row. "There is every chance they can do it," said Richard Cockerill, whose Leicester team face the "holders" in Pool Three. "Toulon are a who's who of rugby, they can go into the world marketplace and just keep upping the offer until someone says yes. You wouldn't question their hunger, and although Jonny Wilkinson has retired, some would say they are better with Matt Giteau at fly-half."

4. Does it mean big TV money?

The leagues are running the show now instead of the unions. In May, EPCR set a reserve price for French TV rights of £21.2 million. At the last minute last Sunday, a deal was announced reportedly worth £15.7m. But EPCR claim the arrival of BT and Qatar-based BeIN Sports as rights bidders in Britain and France has lifted overall TV revenues by 60 per cent to £45m a year.

5. What about the sponsorship?

There has been a slow start, blamed by EPCR on a short lead time. Heineken's former title sponsorship was worth £7.9m a year; now the brewer is paying £3.1m as a Champions League-style "partner", and the idea is to have five of these. Craig says a English club previously receiving £630,000 a year from Europe should now expect £1.3m "straight into the bottom line". The overall "objective" is to double last season's revenues of £39.5m in the next four years.

6. What about the business end?

More compressed, it should be a rollicking, rollercoaster finish, with quarter- and semi-finals in April and the final at Twickenham on 2 May, three weeks earlier than last year.

7. is it tougher than before?

The Heineken Cup was never easy, but the new tournament has been trimmed from 24 teams to 20 by ejecting four Pro12 teams into the second-tier Challenge Cup. As before, only group winners are guaranteed a quarter-final place, so Saracens, Munster and Clermont have it all to do in the super-heavyweight Pool One. "As the season progresses, that is where you need your strength in depth," said Jim Mallinder, coach of English champions Northampton. "The French have got that and it becomes hard for the rest. "

8. So we are in for a treat?

Are there great matches coming our way? "Absolutely stonking," as Craig put it. Fixtures such as Bath v Toulouse and Northampton v Ospreys are guaranteed to get the juices flowing, and Sale Sharks are expecting a record attendance for Munster's visit next Saturday. There are big-name players all over, with the obvious exception of Cardiff Blues' battalion of Welsh Lions, led by Sam Warburton, who are confined to the Challenge Cup.

9. Is the qualifying fairer now?

EPCR are proud that "for the first time all teams have qualified on merit", but remember, each of the Six Nations unions are guaranteed at least one Champions Cup participant. So Treviso are in because they finished above their Italian rivals Zebre in the Pro12 last season. But Treviso finished below Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh, Newport Gwent Dragons and Connacht, all of whom are in the Challenge Cup.

10. What chance for the English?

The last English winners were Wasps in 2007. Since then, Leicester in 2009, Northampton in 2011 and Saracens, against Toulon last season, have been runners-up. "Everyone kept telling me we were the Manchester United of rugby – and now we are," joked Cockerill of Leicester's mixed early-season results. "But I don't think Ulster will come to Welford Road [next Saturday] expecting an easy game. Saracens have probably been unlucky not to win [the Heineken], and all the English sides have the capability to do well."

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