Plans to reduce the Heineken Champions Cup to either 18 or 16 teams are on the table at European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), with a decision on these discussions due shortly as the Swiss-based organising body look to put in place a range of commercial and broadcasting deals beyond 2022.
Speaking to the Guardian, EPCR director general Vincent Gaillard said: “We need to have some certainty for the direction of the tournament. We have received a very clear mandate from the board for the process to be concluded shortly.
“We are discussing whether there might be potential for change or improvement but if the desire is to stay with a 20-team Champions Cup that is what we will do. We’re not in a bad place, we just need to project ourselves into the future.”
Aside from sticking by the current format of 20 teams divided into five pools of four, a set-up that has been in place since EPCR took over the tournament from the ousted ERC administration in 2014, there are rival proposals to cut the number of participants to 18 and 16.
Reducing to 18 – six pools of three – would immediately put a stop to the current situation where teams from the same country can play each other in the pool stages. Exeter-Sale, Harlequins-Bath and Toulouse-Montpellier have been among the same-nation fixtures this winter.
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The freeing up of some pool weekends in the calendar with a reduction in teams would also create the potential for home and away semi-finals.
However, some officials are also pushing to maintain the current 20-team set-up where it is reported attendances in this season’s tournament are up seven per cent even though a number of Premiership clubs have fielded weakened teams in some games.
Only last month, EPCR chairman Simon Halliday admitted to RugbyPass that financially the tournament hadn’t done as well as it was hoped since reducing from 24 to 20 teams in 2014/15.
Effectively, despite years of change under EPCR, European rugby is back where it was under ERC as clubs are again playing for the Heineken Cup https://t.co/Q1TVczJL21
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 15, 2019
“On the field, we have made a lot of good improvements. We have hosted good finals, we have changed one of the criteria so Benetton qualified by right this season, we developed free-to-air where there wasn’t any and brought it to more people. Commercially, it has been a disappointment. Lots of reasons for that. The rebranding takes time.
“Secondly, a lot of sponsors have gone from being global into being pan-Europe, even local, so the way they allocate their money has changed, the way people look at traditional sponsorship has changed. Look what happened with Six Nations, for example.”
Dominant teams have been the story of this winter’s action as Leinster, Exeter, Ulster and Toulouse head four of the five pools with four wins from four, while Racing, the other pool leaders, are also unbeaten with three wins and a draw in their four matches.
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