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The European Rugby Champions Cup, formerly the Heineken Cup, is the premier club competition in the northern hemisphere.
The setup is a bit complicated: the top eight teams from each of the Top14, URC and Premiership (unless last year’s champions fall outside that, when they automatically qualify and that league has seven other places) all qualify. These are distributed across four pools, but the winners of each league go into a different pool, and each pool is set up with two teams from each league.
After all of this, each side plays the four “foreign” teams in their pool, two home and two away matches. And after all of that, the sixteen sides with the most points go into knockout matches, the bottom eight sides drop down into the Challenge Cup, which is a parallel competition along similar lines (but a bit different because there are fewer teams) for the lower placed teams in each league.
This format of the competition is new, so we don’t quite know what it takes to qualify, but anyone that wins three or four matches should get through. Two matches plus some bonus points should also be enough. Conventional wisdom says that to be in with a chance of winning it all you really need to finish first or second though: home field advantage through the knockout stages is a huge edge. The final rotates around participating countries, and the results are far less clear cut there. Last year Leinster faced La Rochelle in Dublin but lost for example. The top sides are often close, have fans willing to travel and the stadium is not as packed with home fans as the semi-final because tickets go on sale earlier to try and ensure it’s sold out. Some supporters of teams that have been knocked out doubtless return their tickets or sell them through touts, but a fair number travel for a fun weekend of rugby – both finals happen in the same city on successive days.
Position after two rounds
One of the traditional European heavyweights, Toulouse are sitting pretty on maximum points. So, perhaps more surprisingly, are Bordeaux-Bègles and Bath. Another heavyweight, Leinster, and three teams with some pedigree, Exeter, Leicester and Northampton, also have two wins, but only nine points, having missed out on a bonus point. One of Toulouse and Bath will not go undefeated, they will play each other in the next block of games. Northampton and Exeter are in the same pool, but are also from the same league, so they could both go undefeated.
At the other end of the table, Cardiff, Connacht, La Rochelle, Racing 92, Stade Francais and Toulon have lost both their matches. Munster and Bayonne are doing little better with a draw and a loss each. Of these, there are quite a few surprises. Racing 92 and Toulon are first and second in the Top 14. Munster are fourth in the URC but are another side with a proud European record. La Rochelle aren’t having a great year in the Top 14 so far, but they won the Champions Cup for the last two years and appear to be set to go out this year with a whimper.
Everyone else has a win and a loss, and some differentiation on bonus points, which will be important in the final shakedown but doesn’t really matter now. For example, Lyon are second in their group, Bulls third, because Lyon have three bonus points and the Bulls only have one.
What can we tell?
The English teams are doing surprisingly well. Four of them have won both of their matches, the other four have won one, lost one. Compare that to France, who many expected to do well, they have two teams with two wins, but four with none. The draw between Munster and Bayonne possibly saved France from having five winless sides, or the URC from having three of course. That said, all those bad French sides have at least one, three of them have two losing bonus points. But their two win sides, have a huge points difference (+70 and +55) while the other team on ten points is only +30 and all the other two win teams have less than +20. The French teams could be characterised as more unlucky than bad. Stade Francais are a zero win team, but kicked for the corner and a try for the win, instead of taking the points and a draw in the last game yesterday. Smart? Not sure, but certainly fine margins. In the first round of matches, Toulon lost by one point to a try scored with time expired and a conversion from the 5m line. Another fine margin.
Leinster are still Ireland light. Of course some of the Irish stars have retired, so it will be interesting to see how the national side goes with those absentees, but a squad that has about 10 of the Irish starters playing is going to be pretty dominant in the club game.
It’s important to bear in mind that the ERCC form, as with the Heineken Cup before it, can change drastically. The next two rounds of matches are Jan 12-14 and Jan 19-21. That’s plenty of time for injuries, or players returning from injury, to affect selection. Sides also make strategic decisions on who to play. If La Rochelle are working their way into the top four of the Top 14 they might decide to put out a weaker side, certainly in round four if they lose in round three. Their fourth round opponents will be Sale, who currently have one win, one loss. Securing a bonus point win might be the difference between them finishing top four, fifth to eighth or ninth to sixteenth depending on how things go in round three. Northampton, who will be playing Munster, will not get an academy side. Similarly, Bordeaux-Bègles have a trip to Loftus, always fun, which will challenge their unbeaten record.
Looking ahead, my best guesses for the semi-final lineup, in decreasing order of confidence are:
Toulouse are going to see some changes of personnel, particularly as Dupont looks to move to 7s and win Olympic gold. But they’ve got a good squad, plenty of depth in all positions, and experience of reaching deep into competition. Leinster, like Toulouse, regularly go deep, they lost the last two finals in fact. Arguably these two sides could swap the top two places, but in the first two rounds, Toulouse have just looked totally dominant, and they’re not travelling to South Africa, playing the Bulls at home, so I think they’ll be fine. Bordeaux-Bègles and Exeter are lower down in my confidence for slightly different reasons. Institutionally, Exeter have experience, they won in 2020, but this is a really new squad, only about four players remain since then, and while they might survive one slip-up in the pool stages, one slip in the later stages and that’s it. However, so far, they’re undefeated and I have more confidence in them than Bath, who don’t have that institutional memory either. Bordeaux don’t have it, but they do have two convincing bonus point victories, a convincing pack and a backline that starts with Lucu and Jalibert and out wide has Penaud and Bielle-Biarrey. They score tries for fun, even in December in Europe, and will be hard to beat.