Champions Cup and Challenge Cup- what’s the difference?

Playing in Europe is the goal for every domestic team playing either France, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy and now South Africa. But there are two different competitions. 

Champions Cup and Challenge Cup- what’s the difference? The champions cup is the highest level of European domestic competition, with the Challenge Cup being the second-tier competition for Rugby clubs based in European leagues. 

While it may be confusing that there are two different European domestic competitions, it is a lot simpler than it seems. The Champions Cup is the highest tier of European domestic competition. It is for the best teams in Europe. The qualifications for the two cups are different. 

For the Champions Cup, the top eight teams in the English Premiership and the French Top 14 from the previous year qualify for the Champions Cup. The United Rugby Championship also has eight teams entered into the competition. Four of the teams are the highest ranking Irish, Welsh, South African and either Scottish or Italian teams. The remaining four are the highest ranking remaining from the previous season. 

This means that the Champions Cup is featuring the best European domestic teams from the previous year. The remaining teams in the top three European leagues that did not qualify for the Champions Cup then qualify for the Challenge Cup. Essentially in football terms, the Champions Cup is the same as the Champions League while the Challenge Cup is the Europa League. 

Other than the teams that qualify, there are not many major differences. Four more teams qualify for the Champions Cup than the Challenge Cup, but both are split into two pools. The Challenge Cup has invited South African team the Cheetahs to join the competition for the 2022/23 season. 

Who has won the most Challenge Cups? 

Clermont and Harlequins are the joint most successful teams in the history of the Challenge Cup. Both teams have won three titles. 

Harlequins won their first title in 2001. It was a surprising result considering Harlequins finished the group stage tied on points with French team Dax. They only progressed on points difference and made it to the quarter-finals. In their quarterfinal, Quins beat Brive 20-13. 

The semi-final was an all-English affair against Newcastle Falcons, where Harlequins came out as 17-12 winners. The team was spearheaded by England stars Jason Leonard and Will Greenwood and both were crucial as Harlequins won 42-33 in an exhausting final against French team Narbonne. 

Harlequins also became the first team to win the competition twice, although they were close to being out in the quarter-finals, scraping through on aggregate. Their first leg performance was once again good enough to get them through despite a loss to Connacht in the second leg. 

The final was once again at the Madejski Stadium, this time against French team Montferrand. Tries from Gavin Duffy, Simon Keogh and the kicking of Paul Burke led Quins to a narrow one-point win. 

Harlequins also became the first team to win the competition in 2011. Quins made it through the group stage with relative ease, winning five of their six group stage games to easily finish top of Pool 1 and make them the fourth seed. 

Two tries in the first five minutes and the boot of Nick Evans was enough for Harlequins to get past Wasps at the Stoop. Harlequins were able to get the better of Munster in the quarter-final, despite being underdogs against the two-time winners of the Champions Cup. 

The final was an incredibly tense and tight final game, with Harlequins four points behind in the final five minutes. A spectacular try in the corner from Gonzalo Camacho in his last game for Harlequins secured the win against Stade Francais. Despite making the final in 2016, Harlequins have not won the title since. 

Clermont are the other team to have won the Challenge Cup three times. Back when Clermont were known as Montferrand, they finished top of pool 2 in 1999 and a dominant 66-13 victory in the quarter-finals put them into a semi-final against Narbonne. Having dispatched their counterparts, Clermont defeated Bourgoin in the final for their first title. 

Clermont did make the final again in 2004 but they lost to Harlequins in the final. Thankfully for Clermont fans, they were back in the final three years later. It came after winning all six games in their group stage. 

In the quarter-final it was a much closer affair, getting a five-point win over Newcastle Falcons and defeating the Dragons in the semi-final in a high-scoring affair. In the final, Clermont took a 22-6 lead in the 60th minute and despite a Joe Maddock try, Bath could not come back and Clermont claimed their second Challenge Cup title.

Clermont again strolled through their group stage in 2019 and were the top seed for the knockout rounds. The quarter-final was a rematch of the group stage as they faced Northampton Saints. Incredibly, Clermont scored eight tries including three from Peter Betham and Damian Penaud. 

They came out 61-38 winners. In the semi-final, they faced off against Harlequins and raced off to a 32-8 lead after 54 minutes. Despite three late tries from Harlequins, Clermont came out on top mainly thanks to Morgan Parra nailing six out of his six kicks. 

Penaud would again be on the scoresheet in the final, scoring the first try of the game in the 30th minute. In an all-French affair, Clermont were just too much for La Rochelle. Further tries from Fritz Lee and Wesley Fofana, combined with the boot of Greg Laidlaw meant Clermont came out 36-16 winners. 

Clermont became the joint most successful team in the combination with their third title. It was a title led by Peter Betham, who led the competition with ten tries as well as the boot of Scottish number nine Greg Laidlaw. 

There have been three other teams to make it to four finals, with Gloucester, Bath and Toulon all making four finals. But only Gloucester have won it more than once, with Bath winning once and Toulon losing all four finals they have competed in. 

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