EletiofeExeter's Rob Baxter fears Champions Cup will be hurt...

Exeter’s Rob Baxter fears Champions Cup will be hurt by revised format

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European Professional Club Rugby has confirmed the details of a revised 24-team tournament for next season but a leading Premiership coach fears the tightly-packed fixture schedule will make it extremely hard for the continent’s top players to prioritise the Champions Cup pool stages.

The top eight sides from the three main European leagues will all qualify for the tournament, which will consist of two pools of 12 rather than the usual five pools of four as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two-leg quarter-finals are also being introduced but Rob Baxter, Exeter’s director of rugby, has questioned the practicalities of commencing European fixtures less than a week after the end of this year’s autumn internationals.

“This isn’t a slight on anybody but the way it drops in there immediately post-international blocks is tough,” said Baxter, whose side are still involved in this season’s delayed knockout stages. “It’s tough to see it as an absolute frontline competition for English Premiership clubs as you’re only just going to get your players back from the block of internationals. If they are going to play the next weekend it’s your first European game.

“Somewhere between coming back from the autumn – or the early-winter – internationals you’ve also got to fit two or three rest weekends in for the England players. The whole makeup of the season and how you fight your way through it is going to be an interesting concept. The makeup of the competition is fine – I have no problems with it for one season – but it’s going to be how you incorporate your players into a team that’s capable of winning big matches.”

Player such as Henry Slade and Luke Cowan-Dickie, for example, are almost certain to be involved in England’s squad for this autumn’s proposed eight nations event, followed by the 2021 Six Nations. They will also have ambitions to tour South Africa next year with the British & Irish Lions, leaving Baxter little option other than to rest them at times when, normally, they would be viewing Europe as a major priority.

For next season only, the new-look tournament will extend over eight weekends and commence on that of 11-13 December, less than a week after the scheduled eight nations final. The four highest-ranked clubs in each of the two European pools will advance to the quarter-finals, with clubs ranked numbers five to eight joining the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup.

The rejigged Challenge Cup will kick off with 14 clubs – six from the Top 14, four from the Premiership and four from the Pro14 – while each club will also be permitted an unlimited number of “non-European players” in their squad for the 2020-21 season.

EPCR hopes the new-look competition will prove popular but, as Baxter points out, the fixture calendar is a desperately tight fit even by rugby’s saturated standards. “We’re going into a year that has been massively dictated by a Covid crisis. Hopefully everyone will be sensible on rest periods … and hand it over to the directors of rugby to work out the best way to manage our players. Ultimately if any of us want to work towards winning seasons we have to manage players and get them in good condition.”

This year’s interrupted tournament is due to resume at the quarter-final stage on 19 September. There remains considerable uncertainty, however, over the exact arrangements for the latter stages, with travel restrictions complicating cross-border journeys.

With only a week’s gap between the quarter-finals and the semis, it is also possible the winners of the last-eight tie between Toulouse and Ulster this month will be asked to play their semi-final at the same venue to help reduce risks. The venue for the final in mid-October will now depend on which teams are involved, with Dublin, Bristol and a French city with excellent transport links all in the frame.

Saracens’ quarter-final against Leinster in Dublin will go ahead as planned on 19 September, with the north London club having received official governmental clearance to travel. There remains absolutely no sign, however, of supporters being permitted to attend matches outside their home countries.

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