The Champions Cup is the top level of domestic rugby in Europe. It is the competition that teams in the URC, Premiership and Top 14 are all aiming to get into as well as actually win the title once they are in it. So how do these teams qualify for the Champions Cup?
How do you qualify for the Rugby Champions Cup? The top eight teams from both the Gallagher Premiership and the French Top 14 qualify for the Champions Cup. They are joined by the four Shield winners and the next four highest-ranked clubs in the URC. The winner of the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup are both guaranteed a place in the Champions Cup for the following season.
There are three different ways that teams qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup because there are three different leagues that feed teams into the Champions Cup. The Premiership and the French Top 14 have the same method of getting into the top level of European competition.
The top eight teams in the Gallagher Premiership and the French Top 14 from the previous season automatically qualify for the Champions Cup in the next season. The system for the URC is slightly more complicated because that competition wanted to make sure that the different countries involved were represented in the Champions Cup.
In the URC, the winner of each of the shields will qualify for the Champions Cup. This guarantees there will be one Irish, Welsh, South African and Scottish or Italian team in the Champions Cup because this is how the URC sorts their regional shields. These are half of the teams in the Champions Cup from the URC.
The other four teams that come from the URC are the four highest-ranking teams who did not win their shield. For example, last season saw Ulster, Bulls, Sharks and Munster all qualify for the Champions Cup despite not finishing top of their shield. There is actually one other way that a team can qualify for the Champions Cup.
The winner of the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup are both guaranteed a place in the Champions Cup for the following season. This is still the case even if they are outside of the rankings within their own leagues. It is rare that this rule comes into play because usually, the European cup winners are successful in the league as well.
How many URC teams qualify for the Champions Cup?
In total there are eight teams from the new United Rugby Championship that qualify for the Champions Cup every season. The system that the competition uses is not the same as the Top 14 and the Premiership because the URC is made up of teams from five different countries.
The URC splits the teams in the competition into shields based on the different countries. This is to ensure that not only one or two countries are represented in the Champions Cup. Four of those URC teams are the winners of each of the shields, with the remaining four teams being the highest-ranking teams who did not win their shields.
What is the format of the Champions Cup?
The current format of the Champions Cup is a pretty confusing one as that has changed quite a lot over the last decade.
The format for the 2022-23 season is that the 24 teams in the competition will be split into Pool A and Pool B. Each team will play four games in the pool stage, playing a home and away series against two teams that are also in their pool. These four fixtures will determine the standing for each pool.
The way that the pool stage fixtures were drawn is by being put into tiers. Based on where those teams finished in their domestic competition, they will be put into four different tiers. The teams in tiers 1 and 4 will be drawn against each other, while the teams in tiers 2 and 3 will be drawn against each other.
At the end of the pool stage, the top eight teams in both pools will advance through to the knockout stage. The teams in ninth and tenth in each pool will go to the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup instead. The team in first in Pool A will play against the team in eighth in Pool B, with this being the system for the rest of the knockout games from there.
From that point on it is a simple knockout competition, with each game of the knockout stage being one single game, when in the past the competition has had two-legged ties. The higher ranked team will have the home advantage for the Round of 16 and the Quarter-Final, with the Semi-final and Final being played in a neutral location.
The semi-finals are due to be held in Europe and this will still be the case even if a higher-ranked South African team is playing in the Semi-Final. This will all lead to the Champions Cup Final which for the 2022-23 season is due to be held on the 20th of May 2023.
What is the difference between the Challenge Cup and the Champions Cup?
For fans new to European rugby, it might not be obvious the difference between the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup.
The Champions Cup is the top level of domestic rugby in Europe, with the teams that finish highest in their leagues getting to play in the Champions Cup. It is the first tier of rugby in Europe. Whereas the Challenge Cup is the Second-tier of European rugby.
In their domestic leagues, teams who did not finish high enough to qualify for the Champions Cup will have qualified for the Challenge Cup. It features lesser opposition, with four teams who were knocked out of the pool stage of the Champions Cup going on to play in the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup.
The number of teams is also different between the two competitions, with the Champions Cup featuring 24 teams, while the Challenge Cup features 18. There is a difference in qualification, with the Challenge Cup inviting the 18th team to participate in the competition. The Champions Cup has been dominated by Toulouse, while the Challenge Cup has been dominated by Harlequins and Clermont.