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Heineken Champions Cup suspension: What next?

The EPCR is looking at scenarios in which they can complete the 20/21 Champions Cup after a suspension was called following the French government advising their clubs to avoid cross-border matches. Contingencies include a last 16 or finishing the pools before going straight to semi-finals

By Michael Cantillon @mike_cantillon

We take a look at where European rugby can go next, after the 2020/21 Champions Cup’s temporary suspension was confirmed on Monday…

Straight to a last 16?

The plan being favoured most by French teams, and under due consideration by the EPCR, is to effectively cancel the final two pool fixtures for each club, and progress straight to a last 16-stage on the first of two allocated quarter-final weekends on April 2/3/4.

Indeed, Lyon President Yann Robert – who is also an EPCR steering committee member – discussed the potential options on the table to French radio station RMC this week, should the suspended pool games not go ahead.

In this scenario, the top eight in both pools would progress with the club sat top of Pool A (Leinster) most likely facing the side eighth in Pool B (Gloucester), second in Pool A (Wasps) hosting seventh in Pool B (Exeter Chiefs) and so on.

As a one-off measure, the quarter-finals in this 2020/21 season were scheduled to be two-legged, hence were the first of those weekends instead adapted into a Last 16, then the final four allocated European Cup weekends could play out as last 16 (April 2/3/4), quarter-finals (April 9/10/11), semi-finals (April 30 – May 1/2), final (May 22 in Marseille).

If it does prove impossible to play the remaining two rounds of pool fixtures as well as a round of quarter-finals, then adopting a last 16 weekend would seem the fairest option at this stage.

It would likely make for some exceptionally difficult quarter-finals, however, while seeding in terms of home advantage would be skewed, having been based off just two pool rounds.

Were this adopted, the following teams would face each other in the last 16:

Leinster vs Gloucester, Wasps vs Exeter, Bordeaux-Begles vs Bristol, La Rochelle vs Clermont Auvergne, Munster vs Scarlets, Toulouse vs Edinburgh, Racing 92 vs Toulon, Lyon vs Sale Sharks.

This structure would also see the next four highest-ranked clubs in Pool A and Pool B – currently Northampton, Ulster, Bath and Connacht – drop into the Challenge Cup last 16 – which was already in place for the 2020/21 campaign.

Complete the pool stages and straight to the semi-finals?

The other potential avenue being discussed is to finish the two remaining rounds of pool fixtures over the two weekends in April designated for the quarter-finals (April 2/3/4 and 9/10/11) before then progressing straight to the semi-finals.

In this scenario, each club will have fulfilled all four of their pool games, but only the top two in each pool would progress.

What could happen in this circumstance, however, is teams could win each game they play – take defending champions Exeter Chiefs for example – but still be eliminated, and it could be due to Covid-19 disruption (Chiefs suffered a cancellation and 28-0 loss to Toulouse due to an outbreak in December).

Several clubs would likely be left feeling exceptionally hard done by were this to be brought in therefore.

While no solution is perfect, this structure would appear more imperfect than the last 16 proposal. But, it would be a way to complete the tournament.

Outright cancellation?

The option favoured by nobody at present, but one that has been mentioned across social media, is an outright cancellation of the 2020/21 Champions Cup.

“While respecting all further directives by governments and local authorities, and prioritising the health and welfare of players and club staff, EPCR, in conjunction with its shareholder leagues and unions, remains committed to trying to find a solution which will enable it to resume and complete the tournaments as soon as practicable,” the EPCR said as part of their Monday statement.

All plans at the moment are to find a solution to complete the tournament, most likely via one of the aforementioned scenarios above, but as is the case with everything in the world at the moment, nothing is certain.

Should the Covid-19 climate continue to worsen across Britain and Europe, then one imagines a suspension of all elite sport would likely come into force. If this comes to pass, a cancellation of the tournament is expected.

All hopes are to continue playing elite sport, while the vaccine is rolled out across respective populations. But we shall see.

The Six Nations is due to kick off on February 6, with a meeting between the French ministries of the Interior, Health and Sport, as well as of the President’s office, and the tournament organisers expected imminently.

At the moment, it is understood that France expect the Six Nations to proceed. If this is the case, then the Champions Cup will also carry on, but with very few free weekends in the calendar, something will have to give somewhere.

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