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'This is the problem with this competition' - Champions Cup format 'can not hold'

By Stefan Frost
Dave Ewers is tackled in Thomond Park /PA

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Former Scotland coach Matt Williams has criticised the format of the Heineken Champions Cup after Harlequins were knocked out in dramatic fashion by Montpellier.

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The London team lost 40-26 in the first leg of the last 16, then won 33-20 at home in the return fixture, but fell short of their French opposition by just one point on aggregate.

Earlier in the tournament, a rise in Covid outbreaks meant each team only played four games in the group stages. Harlequins won all four while Montpellier lost two, including an 89-7 hammering by Leinster.

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Williams believes the French side have benefited from the new formatting and thinks their progression to the last eight is not a true representation of their tournament form.

“This is the problem with this competition,” he said on Virgin Media Sport. “Harlequins have five wins, one loss and they’re out of the competition. The team that are through to the quarters have two wins.

“Montpellier have definitely been the best team over the past eight days but they’re making a European quarter-final based on two or three games.”

Williams went on to argue that Harlequins had been the better team across the tournament and deserved more. To further his point, he pointed out that a similar situation could play out today when Racing 92 play Stade Francais. Racing won the first leg 22-9 but their opponents, who have won just one game in the tournament thus far, can still qualify with a big enough margin of victory in the second leg.

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“If Stade Francais win by 15 points today, they will knock out Racing, who would have won five from six, while Stade will have won just two. That just doesn’t stack up in any competition in the world.”

The last 16 round was introduced this year, along with two legs in the knockout stages, to accommodate more teams in the competition. These changes came into force because of the pandemic and Williams hopes they will not become permanent.

“You can’t have a competition where teams that win only one or two games get to the quarter final and eliminate teams that have won all but one game over the season. It makes the season irrelevant.”

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Appearing alongside Williams was former Leinster man Shane Horgan, who thought differently of the situation.

“It’s been a very unusual year,” Horgan said. “Covid influenced what we could do before Christmas. This has allowed us to have another round of matches. So far there’s only been one dead rubber – the La Rochelle game.

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“Every other game was up for grabs so the team that comes through across two legs deserves to go through. We’re now in the knockout format. That’s the excitement of the cup.”

Williams was still not persuaded.

“This format can’t hold. It has to be a meritocracy.”

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