The hugely interrupted European calendar this season has provided an opportunity for live test changes to the tournament format. Original plans had the well-supported Champions Cup Round of 16 adjusted in the 2020/21 season.
The group stages had already been cut from six games to four, and we ultimately only saw two games before Covid-19 intervened. Then last weekend, fans were treated to a Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16, and the same in the European Challenge Cup. Such was the entertainment throughout last weekend, there is a big case for this format to remain.
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) April 4, 2021
European knock-outs are ‘season highlights’
The immediate bonus of the Champions Cup Round of 16 is the removal of dead-rubber pool games. We have seen in previous, and more regularly recently, that once teams are out of qualification contention, they have little reason to field full-strength sides in the competition. As a general rule, lose your first two pool games and you are highly unlikely to qualify for the knockouts. With no incentive such as a dropdown to the Challenge Cup, there’s not much incentive to risk injuries to key players.
In a normal Champions Cup tournament, there are only seven knockout games including the final. Yet on the whole, these are the most remembered games of the season. Perhaps that is because there are so few. But on the evidence of this Round of 16 weekend, less is not more. The extra round of knockouts created some huge clashes, that otherwise would’ve been watered down within the group stages.
It cannot have just been the good weather that led to so many high-scoring games.
Champions Cup Round of 16 should feature in future tournaments
We don’t yet know what next season’s European tournaments will look like, but there’s now good reasons to keep the Champions Cup Round of 16. The shortened group stages and longer knockout format now looks viable and attractive for both supporters and broadcasters. It is surely worth trialling for next season when supporters should be allowed to attend, and no games should be cancelled for Covid-19 reasons.
There is an argument that the enlarged 24 team competition devalues the top tier competition, with lower mid-table teams able to qualify. But as shown by Gloucester, league position means nothing in a one-off knockout match; they may bee 11th in England but they were very competitive against the Top 14’s second-placed side La Rochelle. Equally, Sale Sharks lost both pool games but are third in the Premiership and demolished the Scarlets to be in with a shout of the semi-finals.
Looking ahead to the EPCR quarter-finals
Another positive of the Champions Cup Round of 16 is that it makes it more of an achievement for the eventual champions. If Exeter are to retain their title, a massive achievement in itself, they will have to have knocked out Lyon, Leinster and then the likelihood of two additional French teams to win the trophy.
The seeding system, by design, creates what should be a more favourable draw to the champions. So if ‘weaker’ teams are drawn against the champions and are quickly eliminated, the number of dead rubber group games goes up. Just look at Lyon’s results in the two years previous to this. Admittedly, the change to seedings based on league position rather than previous Champions Cup performance has helped this.
Game of the #HeinekenChampionsCup QFs? 👀
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) April 4, 2021
So after some titanic clashes, supporters can now look forward to another round of Europe’s best going head-to-head. The four who make the semi-final cannot be accused of getting a lucky draw and chancing upon the semi-finals. Even the perceived easiest route, found through quarter-final one, sees La Rochelle and Sale Sharks face off in what should be a hugely physical encounter, with both sides going well in their respective domestic leagues.
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