The 2023/24 Champions Cup season was launched in London. Billy Stickland/INPHO

EPCR aim to restore reworked Champions Cup to its former glory

The new Champions Cup season kicks off next weekend.

LAST WEEK THE42 hopped on a short flight over to London for the launch of the 2023/23 Investec Champions Cup and Challenge Cup seasons, an event which took place in the impressive surroundings of the gleaming Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in the north of the city.

As we spent the first couple of hours listening to various Q&A sessions before sitting down for interviews with some of the players, the place didn’t have the feel of a football stadium. Moving from the media centre and past the Tottenham trophy cabinet – yes, they do have one – to an upstairs lounge area, it felt more like being in Dublin’s Convention Centre than one of the most impressive grounds in European football. 

It was only later in the day when we were brought down through the tunnel and pitchside that we had the chance to properly appreciate the stadium, which houses a separate set of dressing rooms and media facilities for when the ground hosts NFL games. Standing in the corner below the imposing, 17,500-capacity single-tier South Stand, we imagined how the place might look and sound when Champions Cup final day arrives on 25 May.

Selfishly, we hope at least one of the Irish provinces makes it to the decider so we get the chance to come back. For tournament organisers EPCR, an Irish side in the final would certainly help shift the 62,850 tickets up for grabs.

a-general-view-of-the-stadium-ahead-of-the-premier-league-match-at-tottenham-hotspur-stadium-london The 2024 Champions and Challenge Cup finals will be held at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Even in the wake of another World Cup quarter-final exit, Irish rugby is booming, evidenced by the 50,000 supporters who filed into the Aviva Stadium for last weekend’s URC interpro derby meeting of Leinster and Munster.  

You can be sure the interest levels will still be high as the new European Cup season kicks-off this weekend, but that’s not been the case across the board in recent years. With some of the English and French clubs, there has been a perceived apathy towards the European competitions.

Tournament organisers have renewed hope this issue won’t creep up again this season. Last month, representatives from every club across the EPCR competitions gathered in Toulouse alongside members of the various unions, leagues, players associations and World Rugby for an EPCR club conference in Toulouse. Remarkably, it was the first time such a conference has ever taken place.

After a difficult few years for the competition, EPCR Chairman Dominic McKay suggested the pieces may be finally about to fall into place again for European club rugby’s showpiece tournaments.

In London McKay spoke of rugby “getting its act together a little bit and professionalising itself”, adding that the difficulties posed by Covid perhaps forced the sport to reevaluate the way it promotes itself. As another European Cup season prepares to burst into life, there is still a feeling the product on offer could be bigger and better. 

“In many respects, the only time that rugby should be competing is on the field,” McKay said. “Off the field we should be doing as much as we can to make it as easy for the supporter, the broadcaster or the sponsor to engage with us, and if we can do that as a collective that will grow the sport, particularly in markets where rugby really isn’t the dominant sport.

“I think we’ve perhaps been humbled a little bit by the impact Covid has had on the sport, and it’s forcing smarter, more aligned, more collaborative discussions now, and that has to be good for the whole environment.”

McKay highlighted the approach to securing a new TV deal in North America as an example. Instead of EPCR looking to agree a broadcast deal by themselves, they put forward a combined package alongside URC and the Top 14.

jacques-raynaud-and-dominic-mckay EPCR CEO Jacques Raynaud and Chairman Dominic McKay. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

“It’s a small example but that’s a very practical way of saying actually, if we come together, whether it’s on sponsorship, data, ticketing, television, we can open new doors because they don’t view us in some regards as a niche sport.”

The idea of rugby being something of a niche sport came up more than once. The 2024 Champions Cup final will be played in a stunning, sprawling 60,000 capacity ground but the tournament has struggled to capture the imagination in recent seasons. The complicated two-pool system adopted during Covid lacked jeopardy but this year the tournament starts with a much more familiar format of four six-team pools.

“My sense is we have tinkered with the competition a few years ago and that wasn’t to it’s advantage,” McKay admitted. “That was done for a very sensible reason I’m sure during Covid, but that was disruptive.”

With the top four from each pool advancing to the knock-out stages, there will still be a lot of rugby played before some big names begin to drop out but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

EPCR are also acutely aware weakened team selections have created a damaging look for their product.

“What I would say is that from an owner’s point of view, and I spent a lot of time with the French owners recently, there is a growing affection towards the competition which I think perhaps had dissipated a little bit a few years ago, and they are now excited. It was characterised by the chairman of LNR (French National League Rugby) who spoke at our conference and said it has been revitalised in the last 18 months.

There is an excitement around the competition that maybe hadn’t been there, and that excitement I hope translates across the park in terms of the best teams being available to play week-in, week-out and the best players being available week-in, week-out.

“Rugby is still a challenger sport in many respects and we’ve got to work really hard to make sure that we become a dominant sport and bring more people into it. The best way to bring more people into our sport is to have the best players recognised and have the best players playing regularly.”

Ultimately, EPCR can’t control how clubs approach their competitions but they still have a strong product on their hands. The Leinster-La Rochelle rivalry has thrilled across the last three seasons, teams with strong histories in the competition like Munster and Toulouse have played their part in memorable knock-out ties and some of the world’s best players are on show every week. As EPCR CEO Jacques Raynaud was quick to point out, 76% of South Africa’s World Cup-winning squad will be lining out across the Champions and Challenge Cups this year.

The South African teams have brought a different dynamic to a tournament which is keen to grow. EPCR recently announced a new partnership with Georgia’s tourism sector and while a Champions Cup final in Tbilisi won’t be happening in the near future, ‘destination finals’ remain very much part of the plan. Final weekends held in Bilbao, Newcastle and Marseille were all memorable occasions and EPCR will continue to explore new destinations while also including traditional rugby grounds, such as the Dublin finals at Aviva Stadium last season. This season’s Challenge Cup will see Georgian side Black Lion host games in Tbilisi while South Africa’s Cheetahs play their ‘home’ pool games against European opposition in Amsterdam.

There are grand ambitions there, but it will all come down to how strong the product is on the pitch. Across last season’s Champions Cup quarter-finals and semi-finals, the smallest winning margin was 14 points. Such lop-sided contests are not doing anyone any favours.

“We are very keen to nurture the competition over the next number of years to grow it, develop it, and make sure it is unique and special,” McKay continued. “It is different from the week-in, week-out club domestic competition. It is different, and it is special, and that’s something which resonates whether you’re a French club, English club or URC club, and I think there’s a growing love across those clubs.”

Time will tell.


Friday 8 December

Connacht v Bordeaux-Bègles
The Sportsground, 8pm, TNT Sports

Saturday 9 December

Bath v Ulster
The Rec, 3.15pm, TNT Sports

Munster v Bayonne
Thomond Park, 5.30pm, RTÉ/TNT Sports

Sunday 10 December

La Rochelle v Leinster
Stade Marcel Deflandre, 3.15pm, TNT Sports

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