Next season’s Heineken Champions Cup looks set to remain a two-pool competition after organisers EPCR on Wednesday issued their fixtures dates for next season.
Last season’s tournament, won last month by Toulouse in a record-breaking fifth final victory at the expense of La Rochelle, was reorganised from the established format, growing to 24 teams divided into two pools, in the face of widespread public health and travel restrictions as the Covid-19 pandemic continued to spread across Europe.
This season will also feature 24 teams, eight each from the PRO14, English Premiership and French Top 14, and there will be four rounds of pool games in December and January as was the case in 2020-21, although the final two rounds were cancelled due to a further Covid lockdown. Yet there looks to be one tweak to this season’s tournament with the round of 16 knockout game still in place but played over home and away legs next April.
Wednesday’s fixture announcement comes a day after the PRO14 announced an expansion to 16 teams and a rebranding as the United Rugby Championship, revealing that the incoming South African franchises - the Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers - would be eligible for European competitions from 2022-23, subject to contracts being agreed.
EPCR confirmed that negotiation process was continuing.
“As professional rugby in Europe begins to emerge from a hugely challenging period for clubs and fans alike, EPCR is currently finalising details of a new shareholder agreement including new and improved tournament formats for the 2022-23 season and beyond,” their statement read.
“Discussions to finalise all details of the formats for next season, and future seasons, within the framework of the new shareholder agreement, are ongoing, and these discussions include the future participation of South African clubs in EPCR’s tournaments as referenced in United Rugby Championship’s announcement.
“No further comment will be made until the appropriate time.” Talking of next season’s schedule, EPCR Chief Executive Vincent Gaillard said: “As we put the finishing touches to a brand new shareholder agreement which promises to be positive for everyone involved in our tournaments, we are continuing to refine and develop the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, and next season will see a return to a full series of massively exciting and competitive matches across Europe,” said.
The 2021-22 Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup will be played over nine weekends, kicking off next December with the last of four pool stage rounds scheduled for the weekend of January 21-23, 2022.
The knockout stages are set to start on the weekend of April 8-10 with back-to-back, home and away Round of 16 legs.
There will be one-off quarter-finals and semi-finals, with the finals set for Marseille, originally slated to host them in 2020, scheduled for May 27 and 28, 2022.
EPCR are waiting for the domestic seasons in England and France to conclude before confirming the qualifying clubs and rankings. The eight teams from the PRO14 have been decided with Leinster regaining their top spot following a final victory over Munster at the end of March. All four provinces will be in the Champions Cup draw, which is expected to take place in mid-July.