Format of Champions Cup could change after raft of postponements

The ECPR cited “exceptional circumstances” in opting to postpone five games in the competition.

The Champions Cup trophy.
The Champions Cup trophy.
Image: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

NO ONE CAN get away from the fact that European rugby is a mess right now.

Seven games have been postponed due to the French government tightening its rules around travel to and from the UK from midnight tonight.

EPCR announced that those “exceptional circumstances” have forced them into this move.

The fear here was that players and staff could end up stuck in France or the UK for Christmas if they had travelled and then recorded positive Covid tests that forced them into quarantine. 

Everyone had seen the havoc caused to Munster, Cardiff, and Scarlets by their recent United Rugby Championship trips to South Africa and EPCR were nervous of something similar happening this weekend with teams travelling for the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.

The issue is specifically with the French border, which is why all seven of the postponements are for games involving Top 14 clubs. Lyon will play Dragons tonight in the Challenge Cup, but they had already arrived in Newport this morning and will fly home tonight after that game.

There has been anger that these games have been postponed where others have been cancelled.

There is no indication that the previously cancelled games will have their status altered to postponed. 

Leinster fell foul of a cancellation just last night as their visit to Montpellier was called off and the French club was awarded a 28-0 bonus-point win.

Leinster’s more recent and greater number of Covid when compared with Montpellier’s saw the decision fall in the Top 14 side’s favour. Earlier today, Racing 92 were awarded a 28-0 bonus-point win against the Ospreys after the Welsh region reported positive Covid cases.

Those cancellations – as well as Saracens handing Pau a walkover in the Challenge Cup – all came on account of Covid cases, which are circumstances covered within EPCR’s participation agreement for the European competitions this season.

EPCR’s argument is that the “exceptional circumstance” of the French government suddenly changing travel rules is not something that is accounted for within the participation agreement, and therefore has led to the confirmed postponements.

Scarlets will be feeling deeply aggrieved, having been forced to hand Bristol a 28-0 walkover in Round 1 last weekend after their URC trip to South Africa had forced them into a 10-day quarantine upon flying into Ireland on their return. Welsh government restrictions meant they were refused entry back into their own country.

scarlets-huddle-during-a-break-in-play Scarlets will be feeling deeply aggrieved. Source: Ryan Hiscott/INPHO

The Welsh region’s senior squad only exited quarantine the day before the planned clash with Bristol and they felt they were unable to play. When Scarlets pushed for rescheduling, they were told by EPCR that there was simply no room in the calendar to accommodate that.

And so, Scarlets had to hand Bristol a walkover.

Munster and Cardiff were also in South Africa and the major bulk of their senior squads were forced into isolation as a result, meaning those players missed the first round of European action. Again, they were told that there was no room to reschedule their fixtures against Wasps and Toulouse, respectively.

In the end, Munster and Cardiff both pulled together teams that featured a host of inexperienced young players. Munster beat Wasps and Cardiff lost to Toulouse after delivering a spirited performance.

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But they and particularly Scarlets must now be wondering why they weren’t deemed to be in exceptional circumstances – particularly given that they involved Welsh government restrictions in the case of Cardiff and Scarlets.

As things stand, the frustration within the clubs hit by cancellations is not likely to see anything change. The points have been awarded in those cases and EPCR is attempting to figure out what happens next.

They have five Champions Cup games [and two in the Challenge Cup] that need to be rescheduled, having previously warned of the lack of space in the rugby calendar for doing so.

One option that is set to be considered by the EPCR board for the Champions Cup is a change of format.

The current format is for a round-of-16 played on a home-and-away, two-legged basis after the four rounds of pool games.

It’s thought that EPCR will instead consider playing the round-of-16 ties as single knock-out games, which would open up a free weekend on 8/9/10 April for the postponed Round 2 pool games to be played out.

However, the obvious concern here is the potential for more pool games to be affected next month, with Rounds 3 and 4 of the pool stages scheduled for January. Who knows what kind of exceptional circumstances lie ahead?

The EPCR board will meet in the coming days as they assess the mess and there is no option off the table.

There is also no hope that everyone will be happy with whatever solution is reached.  

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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