IInnovation in rugby tends to divide people into two camps. 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 that it should have happened years ago.
European club rugby, in any case, is entering a new era. This weekend will see the introduction of a two-legged ’round of 16′ in the Champions Cup and, for now, there are hardly any dissenting voices to be heard. Because if you’re, say, a Munster fan, the best of both worlds awaits: a tantalizing trip to England followed by the thunderous buzz of a major Thomond Park rematch a week later. Can’t wait to be there? Of course you are.
In the case of Bordeaux and La Rochelle, a spicy triptych is already underway. On Saturday, Bordeaux head coach Christophe Urios had a run-in with his La Rochelle counterpart, Ronan O’Gara, and was quoted in the French press as having used the word ‘unbearable’ to describe the ‘Irish. Let’s just say the pot is already boiling furiously with two more parts of the trilogy yet to unfold.
Football has followed this pattern for years. Judging by the Champions League profile, it seems to be working pretty well. The only potential snag, the curse of further Covid disruption aside, is the rugby scoring system. If a home team loses, say, 31-21 on an 80th-minute interception try in an otherwise tight first leg, recovering from a 10-point deficit on the outside floor the following week will be a daunting task.
But think about the range of possible scenarios. Let’s say Exeter lead Munster by one point this Saturday with 10 minutes to play. What do they do next? Teams that take the lead can no longer sit down and park the bus. If they do, a little fumble could change everything. Instead, the potential to take an eight-point lead over Limerick will keep everyone on edge until the 80th minute. At that point, there will still be 80 minutes left to negotiate…
Stylistically, the new dynamic will also be fascinating. Are the teams keeping certain secret tactical schemes in the first leg? Or just looking to blitz their opponents with three tries in the first 20 minutes to kill the draw as soon as possible? Will they stray further from home and opt for damage limitation? Or will the revised tournament structure work in favor of the stronger French and Irish teams, with their superior squad?
Home advantage should be maximized. Take the opener in Galway on Friday. Leinster played there as recently as last Saturday of the week, winning 45-8. But Connacht had a player sent off within three minutes, significantly distorting the result. While Leinster will present this time with their Irish internationals, so will their hosts.
Connacht beat Stade Français 36-9 this season and lost by an odd point to runaway English league leaders Leicester. What if Leinster suddenly find themselves faced with an early red card and a stiff wind from Sportsgrounds on their faces?
In theory, they should have the squad depth to stay the course if the first leg is an unforeseen disaster. But from almost every perspective – training, playing and spectator – there is a new dynamic 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 an additional benefit. No ‘away goals’ count here, with extra time to be played if the aggregate score is equal 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, however, the Bears have looked defensively porous. Which makes a two-legged tie extremely difficult to call. If any side can come off and change the color of a tie in 15 minutes, it’s Pat Lam’s team.
It will also test the ability of one or two French teams to perform two weeks in a row. Montpellier, Clermont and Toulouse will want to flex their muscles at home and beat Harlequins, Leicester and Ulster respectively. But will the margins be sufficient to protect them when they travel the following weekend? Look at the list of games and how many probable home and away double bankers do you see? Two or three out of eight, at most.
In all the other sub-plots – and notably the Paris “derby” between two clubs that nearly merged not so long ago – there is also the tennis draw which probably prevents the two title favorites, Racing 92 and Leinster, meeting before the final.
For all of France’s Grand Slam exploits in the Six Nations, it’s by no means impossible that three of the quarter-finals will take place on English or Irish soil. If Bordeaux and Toulouse progress, for example, they may well have to travel to the last eight and Leinster, having seen their pool game in Toulouse controversially postponed, could end up traveling to Welford Road if Leicester edge out Clermont.
That doesn’t mean an English team is ready to lift the trophy. The Premiership has been a bit of a mixed bag this season and Harlequins, Leicester and Exeter will do well to advance to the last four, let alone the final. But therein lies the beauty of the Champions Cup this year. No one can be entirely sure how the redesigned cards will fall.