With the omni-shambles that is the future of the Heineken Cup, a new tournament named the Champions Cup has been put forward by English and French teams. It’s been propositioned to even out the qualification requirements between each league. I have friends who support a Celtic region and they claim this is all greed from the English and French clubs, but it’s hard to sympathise with that view when The Celtic league gets double of what the Top 14 and the Premiership receives. Although money is inevitably an issue in the increasing professionalism of the game, I don’t think it’s the major gripe.
The main issue is the fact that 11 out of 12 team from the Celtic Pro 12 qualify as only 6 or 7 qualify from the English Premiership and 6 or 7 French Top 14 teams qualify. The suggestion from the English and French teams is that this makes the League uncompetitive especially if the team falls out of playoff contention early. There’s no threat of relegation and top tier European rugby is all but guaranteed so teams can comfortably rest their players and prioritise the Heineken cup as the English and French teams will put their domestic league first.
My proposal is that there remains two tiers of European completion, but the first tier is reduced from 24 to 16 teams of 4 pools and the second tier expands from 20 to 24 teams. The qualification process for the top tier would be the top 5 teams from the Celtic Pro 12, 5 teams from the English Premiership and 5 teams from the French Top 14 with the remaining place going to the previous winner of the top tier tournament if they’ve not already qualified, then the winner of the second tier if they haven’t already qualified and then a 6th Celtic pro 12 team. For the second tier the remaining Celtic , English and French teams qualify leaving two more places which would be given to either Italian, Romanian, Spanish or Portuguese teams that qualify through a play-off system. A messy explanation but I tried to put it as succinctly as I could.
Every game would be huge in the top tier with big teams going out in the pool stage and a feel that pretty much every team could go onto win it. For instance the pools for the top tier could have looked like this.
There are still teams from 5 countries competing in the tournament and the only one to have not made the quarter finals of a Heineken Cup is Glasgow. But having come third in the Celtic league it’s hard to argue Glasgow don’t deserve to be there. There will also always be good teams that miss out, and in this scenario Racing Metro would miss out barely despite having beaten a team like Clermont in round 1 of the Heineken Cup.
There is also a knock on effect to the second tier tournament, as already stated teams like Racing would be involved meaning there are still a plethora of big match ups with teams like Cardiff, Exeter and Perpignan also competing. This 24 team tournament would have the exact same format as the Heineken Cup currently does with the first team from every pool qualifying to the knock-out stages and the two best runners up also go through.
The top tier tournament also works in a similar manner with each pool winner qualifying and the two best runners up go through. This means that 6 teams qualify to the knock-out stage, what would happen is the teams that do the best and would be seeded 1 and 2 go automatically through to the semi-finals with the quarter finals being the 3rd seed against the 6th seed and 4th against the 5th. Now this does pose some problems with the bye week the top 2 seeds get which may impact a team’s rhythm but if the quarter-final and semi-finals can be separated by domestic games posing no disadvantage to either side. The fight for top two seeds and qualification in general will keep pool games intense until the very last game.
The Second tier is the exact same format as the Heineken cup currently is with the standard 8 team knock out format. With harsher qualification in the Celtic league, teams like Treviso won’t be playing above their weight with no hope of qualification instead these teams will have a genuine chance of making the knock-out stage and won’t be targeted as easy 5 pointers for the bigger clubs in Europe.
It seems the likely format will be with 20 teams in each tier and no one seems exactly sure how it will work yet but, I’m sure my proposal has its flaws and with many issues still to be decided before next season. Anything is a possibility but I feel this format would be the as close to the ideal solution that can be found.