How to solve Champions Cup’s South African problem

General views during the Investec Champions Cup match between Bulls and Lyon at Loftus Versfeld Stadium on April 6, 2024 in Pretoria, South Africa.
The current Champions Cup has 24 teams - Getty Images/Steve Haag

Last weekend’s Champions Cup action was marred by the Bulls’ decision to send a second-string team to play Northampton Saints in the quarter-finals.

Elsewhere, La Rochelle struggled to match the heights of previous campaigns after travelling from victory in Cape Town to take on Leinster in Dublin.

Telegraph Sport’s experts suggest a solution to the ‘South African problem’ that is developing in the Champions Cup.

Change the knockout qualification process

A drive to greater meritocracy to enable a tweaked format to take the pressure of the logistical complications is the short-term solution.

By setting the bar higher to first qualify for the Champions Cup and to then progress to the knock-out stages would drive standards and prevent teams sending understrength sides.

There is already a plan to reduce the number of clubs in the Champions Cup to 18 which has only been moth-balled because of a lack of agreement on the number of clubs each league will provide.

The Premiership, despite being reduced to 10 clubs, has held firm on its demand for an equal three-way split of six from each league. The Top 14 and URC point out that with 14 and 16 clubs respectively, a 5-6-7 would be more reflective.

A compromise of a ‘coefficient calculation’ that could see the number of representatives from each league adjusted every two years depending on the collective performances in the Champions Cup has yet to break the deadlock.

Akker van der Merwe of Vodacom Bulls scores his team's second try whilst under pressure from Alex Coles of Northampton Saints during the Investec Champions Cup Quarter Final match between Northampton Saints and Vodacom Bulls at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens on April 13, 2024 in Northampton, England
Bulls fielded a significantly weakened team against Northampton in the quarter-final - Getty Images/Paul Harding

The issues thrown up by this season’s campaign should bring everyone back to the table and introduce a new format that would see 18 clubs split into three pools of six, with each club playing each once except for those clubs which are from the same domestic league.

The three pool winners and the best-placed runner-up will automatically qualify for the quarter-finals, with the next eight ranked clubs facing each other in a ‘barrage’ knock-out round to make the last eight.

The automatic qualifiers will have the advantage of earning a weekend off – EPCR would recompense the clubs for missing out on a home match during the barrage round – and will also have more time to sell tickets and market their home quarter-final and ease the travel burden on the South African franchises – if they have qualified.

Cut the overall number of teams

As boring as it sounds, many of the current problems are related to logistics and formats. My proposal would be to reduce the Champions Cup to 20 teams, top six from each league plus an extra spot for the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup winners, which should provide a more elite feel to the competition.

Then simplify it to a format everyone can understand: four groups of five playing over four weekends. Group winners plus the runners up go into home and away quarter-finals on successive weekends, semis and final. At a stroke, this would engage supporters while the two legged quarters would remove a lot of the logistical challenges that resulted in the Bulls sending their stiffs to Franklin’s Gardens.

Two-legged quarters and semis in same city as final

South African franchises boast extraordinary athletes and possess plenty of attacking verve; more than they are given credit for. But the travel issues are predictably tedious and disruptive. Two-legged quarter-finals mitigate the issue without solving it completely because there are still long flights and short turnarounds in the pool stage.

Perhaps staging semis and the final in one venue on back-to-back weekends as well is another way to ease logistics, although that would require negotiation with the Premiership, the United Rugby Championship and the Top 14 over dates. If the South African sides are going to stay, there will have to be compromise.

Get rid of the pool stages

Inviting the South African teams into the competition originally, without ensuring the requisite logistics were in place, is where EPCR erred. Now that the South Africans are in, kicking them out would appear petty and narrow-minded – what is the point in inviting them in and then booting them out when they have not had the chance to fairly prove themselves, owing to an abominable schedule?

Generally, the competition would benefit from a complete reset. I have long advocated an FA Cup-style knockout from the off and nothing I have seen so far this season has changed my mind, with each club’s prize money relative to their progress. The greediness of certain clubs means it would never happen, of course, but if jeopardy and sporting drama is the aim, then a straight knockout should be the game.