The Heineken Champions Cup will feature two-leg quarter-finals next season after European Premier Club Rugby announced an ‘exceptional’ format for the 2020/21 season.
The current Champions Cup format, made up of five pools comprising four teams each, will be replaced for a single season due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, with clubs instead qualifying into two pools of 12 for a campaign that will kick-off on the weekend of 11-13 December.
With eight clubs set to qualify from the Premiership, Pro14 and Top 14 respectively, teams will be split into four tiers, made up of two from each league. Of those six clubs in each tier, teams from the same league will be placed in alternate pools, with tier one clubs facing those from tier four and tier two meeting tier three. However, clubs from the same league will not play each other, meaning every side will play four pool games.
The new format means that the tier one Premiership clubs - made up of the league champions and runners-up unless the reigning Champions Cup holders finish outside of the top two - will face a tier four team from the Pro14 and Top 14, which will be selected from the seventh- and eighth-place teams in each league.
Although the format is a complete change from the current system, the most impactful change will come in the last eight, when the top four clubs from each pool progresses to two-leg ties that will be played home and away. Under the current format, home advantage goes to the four pool winners with the best record, but that will be removed in order to level the playing field in the battle for the semi-finals, which will continue to be played in a one-match affair on neutral territory with home country advantage given to the highest seeds.
With the top four from each pool progressing to the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, the eight teams ranked from fifth to eighth in each will drop down to the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup, where they will join the eight highest-ranked clubs from a 14-team pool stage - an singular pool in which each side plays four matches against the teams from the two other leagues.
While the plans are the biggest shake-up to the competition since the abolition of European Rugby Cup and formation of EPCR six years ago, the changes will only be introduced for the 2020/21 season, with European rugby facing a condensed schedule given the 2019/20 campaign will not finish until next month.
“The decision to alter the formats for next season on an exceptional basis has been made against the backdrop of the Covid-19 public health crisis and its ongoing impact on the professional club game in Europe,” an EPCR statement read.
The changes are to ensure that in the limited time the tournament has to be completed without leaving an impact on the 2021/22 season, a truly European feel will be generated by the avoidance of domestic fixture repeats.
“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,” said EPC chairman Simon Halliday. “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’.”
QUALIFIED CLUBS FOR 2020/21 HEINEKEN CHAMPIONS CUP
PRO14: Leinster Rugby, Edinburgh Rugby, Munster Rugby, Ulster Rugby, Scarlets, Glasgow Warriors, Connacht Rugby, Dragons (Rankings TBC at conclusion of current season)
TOP 14: Bordeaux-Begles, Lyon, Racing 92, RC Toulon, La Rochelle, ASM Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, *Montpellier or Castres Olympique
Premiership: TBC (The club who finish 1st-8th this season)
QUALIFIED CLUBS FOR 2020/21 CHALLENGE CUP
PRO14: Benetton Rugby, Cardiff Blues, Zebre Rugby Club, Ospreys
TOP 14: Bayonne, Castres Olympique, Brive, Pau, Agen, Stade Francais Paris
Premiership: Newcastle Falcons (A further three clubs TBC at conclusion of current season who finish 9th, 10th and 11th)
If not already ranked number one, the winners of the 2020 Heineken Champions Cup will become the second-ranked club from its league. If not already qualified for the Heineken Champions Cup, the winners of the 2020 Challenge Cup will take the place of the eighth-ranked club from its league.
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