From Brentford to Durban: new-look Heineken Cup prepares for takeoff

This season’s Heineken Champions Cup makes even the enlarged Eurovision Song Contest feel like a parochial concept. This weekend alone there are opening‑round games in such wildly disparate locations as Pretoria, Durban, Brentford and Le Havre, involving almost absurd contrasts in temperature and altitude. It’s “Europe”, captain, but not as we know it.

Talk about refreshing the parts other years have never reached. This weekend Harlequins will be beside the Indian Ocean, coping with humidity and 30-degree heat. Next week they will be back beside the River Crane in Twickenham freezing their Yuletide nuts off. People talk about the brave new world of a world club championship but in many ways it is here already.

So welcome, for better or worse, to rugby’s Jeux sans frontières. For English and French clubs, in particular, it is uncharted territory. Don’t ask, for now, about carbon footprints or how many away fans Lyon will be taking to watch them play the Bulls. Instead sit back and contemplate the novelty of a revamped tournament that looks so ragingly bonkers on paper that it might just work.

It may, admittedly, take people a while to get their heads around the whole idea. “If I’m honest I don’t know if introducing the South African sides has necessarily improved the Heineken Cup for the European teams,” murmured Exeter’s Rob Baxter this week. The Chiefs are always up for new experiences but the travel logistics are fiendish. “It’s great for South Africa … it probably makes it more difficult for us. I’m sure our players are really looking forward to a week in South Africa [but] from a rugby organisation, admin and costing perspective, it’s a nightmare.”

His Harlequins counterpart Tabai Matson, on the other hand, has been trying not to sound too cheerful – “I don’t think my wife wants to hear that we’re training in 29C and I’m wearing a singlet” – in his phone calls home from Durban this week. Abrupt reality may yet await. The Sharks’ decision to pick Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, Bongi Mbonambi and a clutch of other Springboks involved against England less than a fortnight ago certainly gives rugby fans in both hemispheres further incentive to sit up and take notice.

Because, if nothing else, the participation of South Africa’s top three provincial sides adds a sprinkling of extra intrigue. Take away Leinster, the top three or four French sides and maybe Saracens and how many European-based sides are equipped to secure the cup? The possibility of being required to head to Loftus Versfeld later in the tournament to face a strong, motivated Bulls side makes things rather less predictable.

As the Stormers coach, John Dobson, has been making clear this week, it is also likely to take the South Africans time to acclimatise to the competition’s different rhythms. His Bulls counterpart, Jake White, feels likewise, wondering if a “wake-up call” awaits some of his less experienced players. “The Champions Cup is the equivalent of the Champions League in football – competing in it is like playing a Test every Saturday. European teams do not just draw from the player pool of their country – they have stars from all the top rugby nations. I fear South Africans are a little naive about what lies ahead. Champions Cup teams are much stronger than those in the United Rugby Championship.”

No one, in short, is entirely sure what to make of the new landscape. The other significant tweak is that, unlike last season, the last 16 – comprising the top eight from each of the two pools – will be played over one leg, not two. There are just four pool games in which to establish crucial early momentum and get a qualifying grip. Fail to start fast, particularly at home, and things will become very tough very quickly.

In that respect there are four particularly key games on the opening weekend. The first is the aforementioned Sharks v Quins game: without the injured Marcus Smith to conjure up some magic, a serious effort from the Quins front five is going to be required. The second is Racing 92 v Leinster, switched from Paris to Le Havre because – as you do – La Défense Arena has been rented out this weekend for a rap concert. If Racing and Finn Russell start slowly, it will make their trip to Harlequins in round two even more vital.

And if an English challenge is going to materialise from somewhere other than Saracens, the Premiership leaders, then Gloucester and Sale will have to muscle up at home to Bordeaux‑Bègles and Ulster, respectively. The return legs will be assuredly tough and, with home advantage in the last 16 also potentially influencing the quarter-final draw, there is even less wriggle room in the pool stages than ever.

Pool A looks particularly fiendish, with the heavy-duty quartet of Bulls, Leinster, Saracens and either Racing 92 or Bordeaux likely to take some major shifting. The Pool B top four, meanwhile, could easily prove very France-heavy, with the Top 14 leaders, Toulouse, the defending champions, La Rochelle, Montpellier and either Ulster or Munster potentially the leading lights.

And if it does all ultimately end up with a Leinster v Toulouse final at the Aviva Stadium on 20 May it will be another sign of these increasingly Franco-Irish times. The 2023 Six Nations could easily see the same two nations vying for the title and Leinster, for all their sustained excellence, would absolutely love to triumph on home soil having lifted the Champions Cup aloft only once since 2012. Either way, one thing is for sure: we can’t call it Europe any more.