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Matt Williams: No matter how it’s dressed up, this is the Champions Cup’s Round of Farce

Any pretence of Europe’s leading club competition being a meritocracy before the quarter-final stage has been abandoned

Earlier this week I opened the EPCR’s Champions Cup web page searching for the kick-off times for the Round of 16 fixtures. As I scrolled down the list I was bemused to find that each club was wrongly matched with a team logo from another team. Bath was adorned with La Rochelle’s famous sailing ship crest, while Leinster’s Harp of Tara was replaced by the crest of Bordeaux and the famous Leicester Tigers were carrying Saracens crescent moon by their name.

Whereas that muddle was presumably accidental (and has since been rectified), the competition’s format remains deliberately flawed: so it really is true that if Munster – who had a solitary win in the pool stage (and had the Leicester Tigers’ logo next to their name earlier this week) –, defeat Northampton – who have won all four of their pool matches (and were adorned with Leinster’s crest) –,then the Irish province will make the quarter-finals.

Even the most hardened Zombie-singing, Red Army member of Munster’s 16th-man faction would be forced to admit that if the shoe was on the other foot – with Munster undefeated and facing elimination at the hands of a team with only a single pool-game win – the system would be unfair.

Munster are not alone. Racing 92, with only one win, can knock out the undefeated Toulouse. Leicester, who lost twice in their pool, can eliminate Leinster, who won all four of their pool games. Teams who have failed in the pool rounds are being rewarded with the opportunity to eliminate winning clubs who have been respectful of the Champions Cup by taking the group stages seriously.


Before the Round of 16 was forced upon European Rugby there were six pool matches to determine the quarter-finalists. Consistency across the home and away series was essential. To be guaranteed a home quarter-final usually required six victories. A single defeat could condemn the clubs to an away quarter-final.

With such exceptionally high standards in the previous six matches, the quarter-finals always produced a banquet of exceptional rugby creating the most spectacular weekend of the season.

Clubs such as Toulouse, Munster and Leinster, along with the great Leicester teams from the turn of the century, all tapped into the unique mindset that is required to win at the peak of European rugby. These clubs, who have been joined in recent years by La Rochelle, understand that winning in Europe is more than a physical and tactical battle. Successful clubs developed the culture required to win from game one in October, through all eight matches to finally lift the trophy in May.

Some clubs just get Europe. This is what separated the champions from the rest.

The magnificence of that exceptionally challenging journey has been diluted to a weakened concept containing only four pool games followed by the upcoming Round of 16. This makes it possible for clubs to reach a quarter-finals with just two wins and a tiny 50 per cent winning record.

Under the former schedule clubs with such a record had no hope of reaching the knockout stages. The introduction of the Round of 16 has created a vehicle for underperforming teams to gain an unjust pathway to success. Any pretence of the competition being a meritocracy before the quarter-final stage has thus been abandoned.

This flawed system means that teams with a winning percentage as low as 25 per cent across the pool stages have been rewarded with a place in this weekends playoffs. Initially the Round of 16 was introduced as a one-off, a sticking-plaster measure to allow the competition to continue during the travel restrictions of the Covid epidemic.

The rugby community understood the need to change to the traditional schedule. Then realpolitik kicked in.

We do not have to put on our tinfoil hats and delve into the realms of conspiracy theories to understand that both the Top 14 and the English Premiership clubs are more than happy with this arrangement. They want fewer European matches and the ability to make more money.

The French and English clubs saw the opportunity to cut the pool matches from six to four, so they can focus on the marathons that are their domestic competitions.

Last season all of the 14 knockout matches played across the Round of 16, the quarter-finals and semi-finals were won by the home teams. One of the many conclusions we can draw from this exceptionally one-sided statistic is that many of the teams who are gifted a ride into the Round of 16 were simply not at the standard required to win in Europe.

Organisations receive the behaviour that they tolerate. Currently, the EPCR tolerates clubs who disrespect the Champions Cup pool stages by selecting second-string teams. Instead of punishing these clubs for team selections that rob the paying spectators of a competitive match, the EPCR then rewards those same clubs by providing them with an opportunity to benefit financially from the farce that is the Round of 16.

Leo Tolstoy tells us that: “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.” While administrators will continue to attempt to justify the Round of 16, I would challenge you to look past their spin and see the Round of 16 for what it is.

A manufactured cash grab that has empowered greed to triumph over the sporting principle of meritocracy.