Yet another new formula
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, EPCR has changed the format of the competition every year. For this edition, the 24 clubs participating in the Heineken Champions Cup are, this time, divided into four pools of six. Each club will play four games against four different opponents who are not from their own league, either home or away. The four Irish teams are placed in a different pool, as are the two South African provinces (Stormers and Bulls). Each pool has two teams from the Top 14. At the end of the group stage, the four highest-ranked clubs from each pool will qualify for the knockout stages, while the fifth-placed clubs will advance to the Round of <> of the Challenge Cup.
What are the ambitions for French clubs?
Considered the most competitive league in the world, the Top 14 leads the way in terms of the number of titles won (11), ahead of England (10) and Ireland (7). And France has reigned supreme on the Old Continent for three years. A real stranglehold - the same as Toulon between 2013 and 2015 - with Toulouse's title in 2021 and the historic double achieved by La Rochelle in the last two editions. Expectations are once again very high on the side of the French teams. With Racing 92, the league leader, who now have Englishman Stuart Lancaster in their ranks, formerly of Leinster and used to intercontinental competitions. The Ile-de-France side, unfortunate three-time finalists (2016, 2018, 2020), have never hidden the fact that this competition is a priority objective.
Bayonne, last season's big surprise, will discover the Heineken Champions Cup on the pitch of Munster. We have known easier baptism.... With its promising line of "Galactics" (Jalibert, Penaud, Moefana, Bielle-Biarrey), will Union Bordeaux-Bègles take a step forward? The Girondins had managed to reach the semi-finals in 2021 (defeat against Toulouse, the eventual winners). Finally, Stade Français Paris and Toulon, back at the forefront of the Top 14 after years at the bottom of the wave, will want to regain their former glory in the Heineken Champions Cup. "We want to play at the next level against the best in Europe. We can't wait to meet these big teams and start this competition, we've been waiting for it for a long time," insists Var winger Gabin Villière.
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One question remains: how will the French internationals react in this post-World Cup year? Antoine Dupont, who dreams of participating in the Olympics with the France 7-a-side team, will only return to Toulouse in case of finals. "We have to stop saying that our heads are upside down. The European Cup comes at the right time: we're changing competitions, we're going to have to change gears. It's going to give us new goals," said international prop Cyril Baille. The problem is that the post-World Cup seasons are not successful for the French. Only Toulouse, for the first edition in 1996, had managed to win the European title after the World Cup in South Africa.
Ireland and England expected to bounce back
Places of honour. Leinster are on the back of two finals, lost in epic conditions to Stade Rochelais. The last one, at home, at their Aviva Stadium in Dublin. The Dubliners, who make up the largest contingent of internationals in the Clover XV, will inevitably be out for revenge, but their last title dates back to 2018, a small eternity. Above all, they will have to digest the departure of their star fly-half Jonathan Sexton. The task will be arduous and the pressure will be high for his successor Ross Byrne, who is currently out with an arm injury. Behind them, Munster and Ulster, while still formidable, struggled as soon as the finals began.
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The case of England is even more complicated. Hit by a severe financial crisis that saw the bankruptcy of three clubs (Wasps, London Irish and Worcester), English rugby is at a low ebb. Gone are the golden years between 2016 and 2020, with Saracens' three titles and Exeter's first. The Premiership now has only ten clubs, with the clubs' cumulative losses over the last six years amounting to €340 million. Be careful, however, not to bury too quickly Her Majesty's subjects who are taking the (forced) gamble on training, due to a very low salary cap. They were announced to be in the middle of a crisis and they managed to reach the semi-finals of the World Cup and to shake up the Springboks for a long time.
Bulls and Stormers on the back of world champion Boks?
Last year, the shift to the south began with the inclusion of three South African provinces in the Heineken Champions Cup. And the Pretoria Bulls, the Cape Town Stormers and the Durban Sharks made their debut in the round of 54. The Sharks and Stormers had reached this milestone but exploded in the quarter-finals against Toulouse (20-42) and Exeter (17-<>). Hard learning. Undefeated on their home soil, these three provinces had suffered away from their bases, in particular because of the precarious conditions of transfer to Europe. "What's tough for South Africa is that even if we finish at the top of the table, we won't get to the semi-finals at home, it'll still be in Europe," said Neil Powell, the Sharks' director of rugby.
This year, there will only be two southern provinces in the big competition (Bulls and Stormers) and the Springboks in their ranks will surely want to live up to their recent World Cup title. If several Boks play in France (Kolisi, Nyakana, Reinach) or Japan (Kolbe, Du Toit, De Klerk, Kriel, De Allende), a large battalion is still "at home". Determined to shine this year in the Heineken Champions Cup, after having managed to get their hands on the United Rugby Championship (formerly the Celtic League), won in 2022 by the Stormers against the Bulls (18-13).