French giants Toulouse have unveiled a revised format for the 2020/21 Champions Cup that would see Europe’s premier club tournament return to having 24 teams for the first time since 2013/14. Civil war in the boardrooms around that time led to the formation of EPCR, who took over the running of the European tournaments from ERC.
One of its first alterations was the reduction in the number of participants from 24 to 20 for the first time since the 1998/99 European Cup. However, with the coronavirus pandemic leading to the shutdown of the 2019/20 campaign, four-time winners Toulouse have hatched a plan that would increase the number of qualifiers for next season’s tournament but free up two extra weekends in the calendar.
In a report published by French sports daily L’Equipe, room to manoeuvre is viewed as invaluable next season due to the likelihood that the fixtures list will the top-heavy with international matches, while the leagues in France and England will seek to prioritise their domestic schedules.
So rather than have the European qualifiers play six pool matches over the winter as has long been the tradition, Toulouse have instead proposed eight pools of three teams which would result in each club having just four group matches and this would free up two weekends.
There is no guarantee that the Top 14, Gallagher Premiership and Guinness PRO14 leagues for 2019/20 can be concluded, but the proposal suggests that each of these tournaments provides eight teams to participate in next season’s Champions Cup.
This French idea will have its work cut out convincing PRO14 clubs of its merit, though. Rather than have three guaranteed home games as has long been the case, this format would reduce that schedule to two and whether a union such as the IRFU would agree is far from certain due to the importance they attach to European fixtures.
The Champions Cup’s potential return to 24 teams would also be seen as hugely ironic in countries like Ireland, who had been happy with the old 24-team system under the disbanded ERC but were forced into the reduction to 20 teams by the warring English and French factions.
EPCR’s delivery of a brighter future has already proven though going. Believing a multi-partnership sponsorship model was the best way forward, they jettisoned Heineken as long-serving title sponsor of the old European Cup only to find new partners were slow in materialised and the tournament became the Heineken Champions Cup last season.
If there is no resumption in the leagues in the current season, the current top eight in France is Bordeaux, Lyon, Racing, Toulon, La Rochelle, Clermont, Toulouse and Montpellier.
The Premiership’s top eight is Exeter, Sale, Bristol, Northampton, Wasps, Bath, Harlequins and London Irish, while the best eight in the PRO14 is Leinster, Edinburgh, Munster, Ulster, Scarlets, Connacht, Glasgow and Cardiff, who would qualify as the Cheetahs are ineligible to play in Europe.
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