IInnovation in rugby tends to divide people into two camps. The purists prefer their game to remain gloriously unchanged while casual fans are more open to proactive experimentation. Rare indeed are those “unicorn” moments when both tribes are happy and something feels so immediately right it should have happened years ago.
European club rugby, either way, is entering a new era. This weekend will bring the introduction of a two-leg “round of 16” in the Champions Cup and, as yet, there is barely a dissenting voice to be heard. Because if you are, for example, a Munster fan, the best of both worlds awaits: a tantalizing away trip to England followed by the thunderous hum of a major Thomond Park rematch a week later. Looking forward to it? Of course you are.
In the case of Bordeaux and La Rochelle a spicy triple-header is already under way. On Saturday, Bordeaux’s head coach, Christophe Urios, had a touchline spat with his La Rochelle counterpart, Ronan O’Gara, and was quoted in the French press as using the word “unbearable” to describe the Irishman. Let’s just say the pot is already bubbling furiously with another two parts of the trilogy still to unfold.
Football has been following this model for years. Judging by the profile of the Champions League, it would seem to be working pretty well. The only potential snag, the curse of further Covid disruption aside, is rugby’s scoring system. If a home team go down, say, 31-21 to an 80th-minute interception try in an otherwise tight first leg, clawing back a 10-point deficit on away soil the following week will be a daunting assignment.
But think of the array of possible scenarios. Let’s say Exeter are leading Munster by a point this Saturday with 10 minutes to go. What do they do next? No longer can sides who take an early lead sit back and park the bus. If they do, one tiny fumble could change everything. Instead, the potential to take an eight-point lead to Limerick will keep everyone at full tilt right up until the 80th minute. At which point there will still be another 80 minutes to negotiate …
Stylistically, the new dynamic will also be fascinating. Do teams keep some tactical ploys under wraps in the first leg? Or simply seek to blitz their opponents with three tries in the first 20 minutes to kill the tie off as early as possible? Will they kick more away from home and opt for damage limitation? Or will the revised tournament structure play into the hands of the stronger French and Irish sides, with their superior squad depth?
Home advantage will have to be maximized to the full. Take the opening tie in Galway on Friday. Leinster have played there as recently as last Saturday week, winning 45-8. But Connacht had a player sent off within three minutes, significantly skewing the outcome. While Leinster will be turning up with their Ireland internationals this time, so will their hosts.
Connacht have beaten Stade Français 36-9 this season and lost by the odd point to the runaway English league leaders, Leicester. What if Leinster suddenly find themselves dealing with an early red card and a stiff Sportsgrounds wind in their faces?
In theory, they should have the squad depth to stay on course if the first leg is an unscheduled disaster. But from almost every perspective – coaching, playing and spectating – there are fresh dynamics at play. The idea should have been a feature of last year’s competition, only for Covid to ruin the plan, and the sudden-death element adds a further edge. No “away goals” count here, with extra time to be played if the aggregate score is level after 160 minutes.
Will familiarity, in some cases, breed contempt? Bristol, for example, beat Sale 32-15 at Ashton Gate as recently as January. Since then, though, the Bears have been looking defensively porous. Which makes a two-leg tie extremely hard to call. If any side can cut loose and alter the complexion of a tie within 15 minutes it is Pat Lam’s team.
It will also test the ability of one or two French sides to perform two weeks in a row. Montpellier, Clermont and Toulouse will fancy flexing their muscles at home and defeating Harlequins, Leicester and Ulster respectively. But will the margins be sufficient to protect them on their travels the following weekend? Look down the list of games and how many likely home-and-away double bankers do you see? Two or three out of eight, at most.
In all the other subplots – not least the Parisian “derby” between two clubs who came close to merging not long ago – there is also the tennis-style draw that makes it impossible for probably the two title favourites, Racing 92 and Leinster, to meet before the end.
For all France’s grand slam heroics in the Six Nations, it is by no means impossible that three of the quarter-finals could take place on English or Irish soil. Should Bordeaux and Toulouse progress, for example, they may well have to travel in the last eight and Leinster, having had their pool game in Toulouse controversially postponed, could end up going to Welford Road if Leicester edge out Clermont.
That is not to say an English side is set fair to hoist the trophy. The Premiership has been a slightly mixed bag this season and Harlequins, Leicester and Exeter will do well to make the last four, never mind the final. But therein lies the beauty of the Champions Cup this year. No one can be entirely sure how the redesigned cards are going to fail.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism