This season’s Heineken Champions Cup makes even the enlarged Eurovision Song Contest really feel like a parochial idea. This weekend on my own there are opening‑spherical video games in such wildly disparate places as Pretoria, Durban, Brentford and Le Havre, involving nearly absurd contrasts in temperature and altitude. It’s “Europe”, captain, however now not as we understand it.
Talk about refreshing the portions different years have by no means reached. This weekend Harlequins will likely be beside the Indian Ocean, dealing with humidity and 30-degree warmth. Next week they’re going to be again beside the River Crane in Twickenham freezing their Yuletide nuts off. People communicate in regards to the courageous new international of an international membership championship however in some ways it’s right here already.
So welcome, for higher or worse, to rugby’s To set up Games without boundary lines. For English and French golf equipment, particularly, it’s uncharted territory. Don’t ask, for now, about carbon footprints or what number of away fanatics Lyon will likely be taking to observe them play the Bulls. Instead sit down again and ponder the newness of a remodeled match that appears so ragingly bonkers on paper that it will simply paintings.
It would possibly, admittedly, take other folks some time to get their heads round the entire thought. “If I’m honest I don’t know if introducing the South African sides has necessarily improved the Heineken Cup for the European teams,” murmured Exeter’s Rob Baxter this week. The Chiefs are all the time up for brand new reports however the go back and forth logistics are fiendish. “It’s great for South Africa… it probably makes it more difficult for us. I’m sure our players are really looking forward to a week in South Africa [but] From a rugby organisation, admin and costing perspective, it’s a nightmare.”
His Harlequins counterpart Tabai Matson, on the other hand, has been trying not to sound too cheerful – “I don’t think my wife wants to hear that we’re training in 29C and I’m wearing a singlet” – in his phone calls home from Durban this week. Abrupt reality may yet await. The Sharks’ decision to pick Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi and a clutch of other Springboks involved against England less than a fortnight ago certainly gives rugby fans in both hemispheres further incentive to sit up and take notice.
Because, if nothing else, the participation of South Africa’s top three provincial sides adds a sprinkling of extra intrigue. Take away Leinster, the top three or four French sides and maybe Saracens and how many European-based sides are equipped to secure the cup? The possibility of being required to head to Loftus Versfeld later in the tournament to face a strong, motivated Bulls side makes things rather less predictable.
As the Stormers coach, John Dobson, has been making clear this week, it is also likely to take the South Africans time to acclimatise to the competition’s different rhythms. His Bulls counterpart, Jake White, feels likewise, wondering if a “wake-up call” awaits some of his less experienced players. “The Champions Cup is the equivalent of the Champions League in football – competing in it is like playing a Test every Saturday. European teams do not just draw from the player pool of their country – they have stars from all the top rugby nations. I fear South Africans are a little naive about what lies ahead. Champions Cup teams are much stronger than those in the United Rugby Championship.”
No one, in short, is entirely sure what to make of the new landscape. The other significant tweak is that, unlike last season, the last 16 – comprising the top eight from each of the two pools – will be played over one leg, not two. There are just four pool games in which to establish crucial early momentum and get a qualifying grip. Fail to start fast, particularly at home, and things will become very tough very quickly.
In that respect there are four particularly key games on the opening weekend. The first is the aforementioned Sharks v Quins game: without the injured Marcus Smith to conjure up some magic, a serious effort from the Quins front five is going to be required. The second is Racing 92 v Leinster, switched from Paris to Le Havre because – as you do – La Défense Arena has been rented out this weekend for a rap concert. If Racing and Finn Russell start slowly, it will make their trip to Harlequins in round two even more vital.
And if an English challenge is going to materialize from somewhere other than Saracens, the Premiership leaders, then Gloucester and Sale will have to muscle up at home to Bordeaux‑Bègles and Ulster, respectively. The return legs will be assuredly tough and, with home advantage in the last 16 also potentially influencing the quarter-final draw, there is even less wriggle room in the pool stages than ever.
Pool A looks particularly fiendish, with the heavy-duty quartet of Bulls, Leinster, Saracens and either Racing 92 or Bordeaux likely to take some major shifting. The Pool B top four, meanwhile, could easily prove very France-heavy, with the Top 14 leaders, Toulouse, the defending champions, La Rochelle, Montpellier and either Ulster or Munster potentially the leading lights.
And if it does all in the end finally end up with a Leinster v Toulouse ultimate on the Aviva Stadium on 20 May it is going to be some other signal of those an increasing number of Franco-Irish instances. The 2023 Six Nations may just simply see the similar two international locations vying for the identify and Leinster, for all their sustained excellence, would completely like to triumph on house soil having lifted the Champions Cup aloft simplest as soon as since 2012. Either approach, something is needless to say: we will’t name it Europe any longer.