Irugby innovations tend to divide people into two camps. Purists prefer their game to remain magnificently unchanged, while occasional fans are more open to proactive experimentation. Those moments of the “unicorn” are really rare when both tribes are happy and something seems so right that it should have happened many years ago.
European club rugby, however, is entering a new era. This weekend will bring an introduction to the two-match “eighth finals” in the Champions Cup, and, for now, there is hardly any disagreement. Because if, for example, you are a fan of Munster, the best of both worlds awaits you: a tempting trip to England followed by the thunderous buzz of a big rematch in Thomond Park a week later. Are we looking forward to it? Sure you are.
In the case of Bordeaux and La Rochelle, a spicy triple blow is already underway. On Saturday, the head coach of Bordeaux, Christophe Urios, had an argument with his colleague from La Rochelle, Ronan O’Gar, and the French press quoted him as saying that he used the word “unbearable” to describe the Irishman. Let’s just say that the pot is already raging with two more parts of the trilogy that have yet to be developed.
Football has been following this model for years. Judging by the Champions League profile, he seems to be doing pretty well. The only potential trap, if we leave aside the curse of further disorder of Covid, is the system of scoring in rugby. If the home team falls, for example, from 31-21 to an attempt to intercept in the 80th minute in an otherwise difficult first game, returning the minus of 10 points on the visiting field next week will be a daunting task.
But consider a number of possible scenarios. Let’s say Exeter leads Munster with a point this Saturday with 10 minutes to go. What will they do next? The parties that take precedence can no longer sit and park the bus. If they do, one little fuss could change everything. Instead, the potential for an eight-point lead to Limerick will hold until the 80th minute. At that moment, there are still 80 minutes left for negotiations…
Stylistically, the new dynamics will also be fascinating. Do the teams hide any tactical tricks in the first game? Or are they simply trying to hit their opponents with three attempts in the first 20 minutes to equalize the score as soon as possible? Will they kick more out of the house and decide to limit the damage? Or will the revised tournament structure play into the hands of stronger French and Irish teams, with their superior lineup depth?
The advantage of the hosts will have to be used to the maximum. Take the opening game in Galway on Friday. Leinster only played there last Saturday, winning 45-8. But Konacht had the players disqualified within three minutes, which significantly distorted the outcome. While Leinster will appear this time with its internationals from Ireland, their hosts will also appear.
Connacht beat Stade Francais 36-9 this season and lost by an odd point to runaway English league leader Leicester. What if Leinster is suddenly faced with an early red card and a strong sports wind in his face?
In theory, they should have the depth of the team to stay on course if the first game is an unplanned disaster. But from almost every perspective – coaching, playing and watching – there is a new dynamic in the game. The idea was supposed to be a feature of last year’s competition, only for Covid to ruin the plan, and the element of sudden death adds another advantage. “Away goals” do not count here, with overtime if the total result is equal after 160 minutes.
Will intimacy, in some cases, provoke contempt? Bristol, for example, beat Salea 32-15 at Ashton Gate in January. Since then, however, the Bears have looked defensively porous. That is why the equalization in two legs is extremely difficult to call. If either side can loosen and change the look of the draw within 15 minutes, it’s the Pat Lama team.
He will also test the ability of one or two French teams to play for two weeks in a row. Montpellier, Clermont and Toulouse will dream of flexing their muscles at home and defeating Harlequins, Leicester and Ulster. But will the margins be enough to protect them on next weekend’s trips? Check out the list of games below and how many likely double bankers do you see at home and away? Two or three out of eight, at most.
In all the other subplots – not just the Paris “derby” between the two clubs that were recently close to merging – there is also a tennis-style draw that prevents probably two title favorites, Racing 92 and Leinster, from meeting before the final.
For all French Grand Slam heroes in the Six Nations, it is by no means impossible for the three quarterfinals to be played on English or Irish soil. If Bordeaux and Toulouse progress, for example, they may have to travel to the round of 16, and Leinster, since their match in Toulouse is controversially postponed, could end up going to Welford Road if Leicester surpasses Clermont.
That does not mean that the English side is fair to lift the trophy. The Premiership has been a bit mixed this season, and the Harlequins, Leicester and Exeter will do well to enter the last four, regardless of the finals. But therein lies the beauty of this year’s Champions Cup. No one can be completely sure how the redesigned maps will fall.