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Send South Africa back to Super Rugby to end Champions Cup woes

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photos by Getty Images)

The Champions Cup has seemingly inherited the problems that plagued Super Rugby in its latter years.

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Instead of a simple, understandable format that rewards teams based on merit and paves the way for one of the best competitions in the world, the Champions Cup has ostensibly devolved into a complicated, cross-border mess.

That’s not entirely down to the introduction of the South African sides to the competition, of course. The Champions Cup changed its format last year after growing dissatisfaction from England’s Premiership Rugby and France’s Ligue Nationale de Rugby due to their ‘under-representation’ in the tournament.

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Expanding the competition to include 24 sides – up from 20 – forced EPCR to rethink the format and while six pools of four might have been widely viewed as the obvious way forward, that was going to lead to too long a season and the current monstrosity was born.

If the Premiership and LNR were willing to put their egos aside and admit the new format simply wasn’t sustainable, they could have reverted to 20 teams – but that’s no longer possible with the introduction of South Africa to the mix.

The United Rugby Championship stakeholders aren’t likely to settle for having any fewer than eight teams represented in the Champions Cup if South Africa are involved, with Ireland, Scotland and Wales all dropping a side for this year’s iteration of the tournament. And if England and France weren’t happy with having just 13 teams collectively involved prior to the format change, they certainly won’t be willing to decrease that number to 12.

So what’s the solution?

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There are, of course, different ways that EPCR could structure the competition – but all are likely to either result in equally as convoluted a format, or too many undeserving sides earning representation.

The better option might be to give South Africa the boot.

That’s not as radical or punishing a suggestion as it may sound – South Africa shouldn’t be left out in the cold entirely.

Halfway across the world, there’s another competition that still leaves a little bit to be desired in the form of Super Rugby Pacific.

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The Oceanic tournament has its fair share of excellent match-ups, but far too often matches are entirely predictable. Australia can’t sustain five competitive top-level franchises and by the time the finals series rolls around – with eight of the 12 sides taking part – much of the interest falls away until the New Zealand sides start squaring off.

The competition is also shoehorned into an 18-week calendar (ostensibly to produce a longer season for broadcasters), with two rounds of repeated matches, when a 16-week tournament makes far more sense.

The best of both worlds could be accomplished, however, by bringing the South African sides back into the fold for the finals series and dropping the extra round-robin fixtures.

There are many ways the new Super Rugby Pacific governing board could structure the set-up of the finals and it’s possible that sides out of Japan could also easily be incorporated but the dates match up perfectly at present.

The URC grand final is set to take place on 27 May next year while Super Rugby Pacific’s regular season would finish a week earlier, assuming the two additional round-robin fixtures were dropped from the calendar.

The URC schedule could also be tweaked so that the South African sides don’t take part during weekends where South Africa are involved in the Rugby Championship (currently there’s a two-game overlap), with their matches slotted into the gaps created by removing them from the Champions Cup – but that’s not a necessity. Already, a number of sides in Europe have weekends off throughout the season due to either not participating in the European tournaments or the Six Nations taking place, so it would hardly be a massive adjustment.

The change would allow the Champions Cup to revert to a more palatable format while also adding some extra spice to a relatively bland Super Rugby finals series. It might also hand South Africa a few additional home knockout games, something which currently appears out of the question in the Champions Cup.

Perhaps the four South African sides would join the four top sides in Super Rugby Pacific for a second round of knockout matches after the Super Rugby champion is declared, perhaps you would replace the finals altogether, with the top side in the competition after 11 rounds declared the winner (Blues fans rejoice). With up to five rounds to work with – assuming no tweaks to the start or end dates of the competition – there are numerous possibilities worth exploring.

The Champions Cup has always been revered as the pinnacle of European Rugby but that mantle has largely deteriorated over the past two years. The Champions Cup didn’t need a revamp – at least from the fan engagement side of things – but it now does. The same can be said for Super Rugby Pacific. The solution seems obvious.

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