I’ve said before that the Champions Cup needs a revamp but the last thing it needs is gimmicks or more games, the organisers have to keep it simple.
The word is that a decision on a new format for the competition will be made relatively quickly and hopefully that means that the straightforward option of reducing the number of teams from 20 to 16 will be the chosen one.
There were 24 teams in the old Heineken Cup and that was cut to 20 when it became the Champions Cup in 2014, creating an even more competitive tournament, but there are still too many dead rubbers as early as Round 3.
Gloucester even went to Montpellier in Round 2 with a weakened team, having lost at home in Round 1. If there were four pools with four teams in each and clubs knew they simply had to finish in the top two to qualify, interest would be maintained for much longer.
That has to be the way to go as the other alternative being mooted whereby there would be six pools with three teams in each (one from the Premiership, one from the PRO14 and one from the Top 14) makes things more complicated.
Then there would be two best runners-up going through instead of three, so that would be more difficult for fans to follow. And, although a shorter pool stage may mean it evens itself out, I just can’t get on board with home and away legs in the quarter and semi-finals.
I played in a two-legged final in the Championship and it was weird. It’s not right when you can lose and then rely on something else next week, or even play for a narrow defeat away from home. It just felt ridiculous.
Potentially introducing it in the Champions Cup smacks of trying to increase revenues at the expense of fans and players and I think it would actually decrease the quality and excitement of the knockout stages.
Knockout rugby is special, knowing how to play it well is an art and that has to be kept to one-off games for me.
I know there will be comparisons to the Champions League in football but it is a very different sport. Apart from the demands on the body, the lower scoring nature of football lends itself better to two-legged ties.
One thing that absolutely has to be ensured is that, whatever changes are made to the format of the competition, there are no games added to the calendar. There are already too many and player welfare must come before everything else.
Moving to four pools of four in the initial stage would help to solve the problems of teams losing interest too early but there is also an issue of not enough fans going to watch the knockout games and the calendar would have to be changed to deal with that.
There are 11 weeks between the end of the pool stages and the quarter-finals, due to the Six Nations, and then four weeks until the semi-finals. An extra week has been added to that gap since last year but it’s tough to sell out those games at big, neutral stadiums with such a short lead time.
The main problem, though, is making sure more teams feel like they have something to play for in Rounds 5 and 6. French clubs have lost interest early on for a long time if things weren’t going their way and English clubs are doing the same this season.
A major reason for that is that the Premiership is so competitive, there are so many games in the calendar and teams like Gloucester, Northampton, Harlequins and Sale just aren’t far enough along in their evolution to be able to compete on both fronts.
However, if they knew that they simply had to finish in the top two in their pool to reach a quarter-final, that may feel like a more achievable target and it would certainly mean that more pools would go down to the wire.
Let’s hope EPCR have heard of the problem-solving principle known as Occam’s razor. The simplest solution is most likely the right one.
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