It is the final weekend of pool games in the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup and Toulon are the only team that have qualified for the quarter finals, unlike in recent years of the Heineken Cup where at this stage of the tournament the majority of the places were already determined.
Despite the long and drawn out battle between the stakeholders of the six countries that compete in rugby’s premier European club competition, the Champions Cup has certainly grabbed the attention of the rugby following public. Excitement levels have reached fever pitch and rugby pundits have been working up the various permutations and nailing their colours to the mast as to who will make it through to the qualifying stages.
Crowd attendances have been good, currently sitting at an average of 12,156/game compared to 14,258 in last year’s tournament and with the knock out stages still to come the average figures are likely to be matched if not improved.
Let’s take a look back at the fundamental changes between the two tournaments;
- The number of teams has reduced from 24 to 20.
- England and France have retained 6 teams each.
- Ireland/Wales and Scotland/Italy are only guaranteed 1 team each from 3 and 2 teams previously, with 3 further places available from the highest placed finishers in the Pro 12.
- The 20th place in the 2015/2016 tournament will involve a three team play off between the 7th placed team in the Aviva vs the 8th placed team in the Pro 12, with the winner playing the 7th placed team in the Top 14.
The million dollar question is whether things have improved and the stats suggest that the new competition has raised the bar. In the 144 pool games of the 2013/2014 Heineken Cup, 231 tries were scored at an average of 1.6 per game. With 100 pool games played in the Champions Cup to date, 216 tries have been scored at an average of 2.16 per game.
What makes this more impressive is that the number of teams in the new tournament has reduced, resulting in more evenly contested matches. In this year’s competition teams are adopting a more expansive style of play, unlocking rugby league defensive patterns and relying less on the kick and chase game, which has detracted somewhat to excitement levels in recent years.
Another contributing factor is the influx of top players from the Southern Hemisphere, attracted by the high standards of rugby and the financial rewards on offer and their contribution cannot be underestimated.
The upshot of the increased standard of the European club game is that the 6 Nations teams, particularly Ireland, Wales, England and Scotland are brimming with confidence following a shift in power in the recent Autumn Internationals and who would argue with one of these teams lifting the coveted World Cup trophy at Twickenham later this year.
So it is all to play for and there will no doubt be a number of twists and turns in the final pool games this weekend, with the Clermont vs Sarries, Wasps vs Leinster and Saints vs Racing Metro the pick of the bunch. Upset of the weekend could be Ulster beating Leicester and the Tigers missing out on qualification for the quarter finals.
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