The European Rugby Champions Cup might not be a new idea – a continental tournament featuring the best teams looking to knock seven bells out of each other has been part of the rugby landscape for 19 years – but this is certainly a new chapter in professional rugby union.
The pool of teams has been trimmed, the television coverage has ballooned, and the competition is set to be more intense than ever. The leaner Rugby Champions Cup is set to become part of sports viewers’ weekend staple for the next six months.
This new tournament may be the result of a bitter boardroom ruck, but the signs are the result will be bruisingly beautiful.
What is it?
The new tournament replaces the Heineken Cup, but the essential premise is the same: teams compete through group and knockout stages in an effort to be crowned the best in Europe.
Twenty teams have been split into five groups of four. The winner of each group qualifies automatically, along with the three highest-scoring second place sides.
England and France have six sides each plus English play-off winners Wasps. Last year’s league results mean that Ireland will have three teams in this year’s competition, Wales two, and Scotland represented by just Glasgow Warriors. Italian side Treviso fill the final spot.
This season’s final will be held at Twickenham on Saturday 2nd May 2015.
How can I watch it?
One of the main sticking points over how the new tournament would work was the disagreement over TV rights between BT Sport and Sky Sports. That conflict was finally resolved in April this year, and both broadcasters will share coverage of the tournament for the next four years. The full broadcast details for the opening weekend are below:
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Friday 17 October
Harlequins v Castres, 7pm BT Sport 2 (kick-off 7.45pm)
Saturday 18 October
Sale Sharks v Munster, 12.30pm Sky Sports 2 (kick-off 1pm)
Saracens v Clermont Auvergne, 3pm BT Sport 1 (kick-off 3.15pm)
Glasgow Warriors v Bath, 3pm BT Sport 2 (kick-off 3.15pm)
Racing Metro v Northampton Saints, 5pm Sky Sports 2 (kick-off 5.15pm)
Leicester Tigers v Ulster, 7pm BT Sport 2 (kick-off 7.45pm)
Sunday 19 October
Ospreys v Treviso, 12.30pm Sky Sports 2 (kick-off 1pm)
Toulouse v Montpelier, 1pm Sky Sports 2 Red Button
Toulon v Scarlets, 3pm Sky Sports 2 (kick-off 3.15pm)
Leinster v Wasps, 4.30pm BT Sport 2 (kick-off 5.15pm)
Who are the favourites?
French side Toulon are aiming for a record third European title in a row, but are without their English talisman Jonny Wilkinson who retired last year. He’ll still be involved in the tournament, however, working as a pundit for Sky.
The English sides look to have benefitted from the streamlined format, and top seeds Saracens will certainly be looking to recover from indifferent domestic form with a good run in Europe. Bath have invested heavily in their squad, and their back line led by fly half George Ford has the attacking flair to rack up a very handy points difference.
The two Welsh clubs sides on the other hand may struggle to live up to the form of the national side, while the traditionally strong Irish sides are not quite the force they once were – particularly Leinster, who are without their talisman Brian O’Driscoll. Glasgow have made an impressive start to the domestic season, having lost just one match, but the step up in class in Europe might be beyond the Scottish outfit.
The full list of teams from each country is available below: