Exeter Chiefs look likely to be one of the sides which could significantly benefit from the decision to postpone the next two weekends of Heineken Champions Cup action.
After being forced to forfeit their second pool stage game against Toulouse before Christmas due to a Covid-19 outbreak at Chiefs – handing the French club five match points and Exeter none, the defending European champions were facing a tough task to qualify for the quarter-finals, sitting in seventh place in Pool B on five points with two group games remaining, at home to Toulouse this weekend and then away to Glasgow Warriors the following weekend.
Even two maximum five match point wins would not have guaranteed Exeter’s advancement.
However with European rugby organisers EPCR postponing the pool games due to the French government ruling Top 14 sides could not participate due to fears of spreading the new strain of Covid-19, a new format for the 2020/21 tournament is being devised to see the competition completed over the four remaining weekends already in the packed to bursting calendar.
The Guardian reports the new format will likely look like a round of 16 knockout phase being introduced instead of the planned two legged quarter-finals, which would also become a one off knockout game.
The next scheduled European rugby slot is the weekend of April 2/3/4, when it is hoped the state of the pandemic will have improved across the continent with a vaccine being rolled out, allowing games to be played.
In the current format of the Champions Cup only the clubs which finished in the top four of their 12-team pools would advance, but the expected changes would mean seventh place would be good enough to progress, with Chiefs likely to face either the second ranked side in Pool B, Racing 92 or the second ranked side in Pool A, Wasps, in the Round of 16 depending on how EPCR decide to structure the competition.
Discussing the two week break in professional rugby and the picture in Europe, Chiefs director of rugby Rob Baxter said: “The one thing we have all got to accept is we are in times when things are pretty changeable and the reality of the situation is you have got to get on with the hand you are dealt as best you can and take whichever positives you can and move forward. That has been our approach.
“The Covid situation has to take precedence and because of that we just have to get on with it. With the reality of where the country is at the moment [with the pandemic] this break probably now looks like a supportive measure to everything else which is going on.”
On Saturday, Baxter, along with Bristol Bears director of rugby Pat Lam, called for Premiership Rugby to move the Round Seven and Eight domestic league fixtures forward to fill the void left by the postponed European games, but on reflection the Chiefs boss says he is at ease with the decision to implement a break.
Baxter explained: “We were concerned that if the Premiership games weren’t moved there would be a risk the Heineken Champions Cup games would have to be squeezed in or we would have to deal with midweek fixtures again like we had at the tail end of last season.
“Now the picture seems to be clearing a bit, that there doesn’t seem to be any drive to compress fixtures and the weekends that are available [for European games] are the only dates available.
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“It looks like there will be some change to the format to allow it to be completed within four weekends. What that will be we are all still waiting to see, but it doesn’t look like they are going to try and squeeze in these two postponed games.
“That now isn’t being talked about so that eases that pressure.”
EPCR are understood to be looking to provide final confirmation of the new format by the end of the month as tournament officials seek to restore some fixture list clarity while providing a meaningful competition despite recent Covid-19 issues which has seen several games cancelled.