The Rugby Challenge Cup, which is officially known as the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) Challenge Cup has been one of the two top club competitions in Europe for almost three decades. The annual tournament features teams from the top three domestic European tournaments (England’s Premiership Rugby, France’s Top 14, and the multi-national United Rugby Championship) along with one South African team which joins it by invitation. Due to the constant changes to its format in recent years, many rugby union fans wonder what the current criteria for qualifying for the competition are as well as who gets to qualify for it as per its current regulations.
Who qualifies for the Rugby Challenge Cup? Currently, 17 teams from the top three domestic rugby union competitions in Europe qualify for the Rugby Challenge Cup while an 18th team (from South Africa) is invited to join it on account of its close relationship with the United Rugby Championship (URC). The 17 teams that qualify for the Rugby Challenge Cup do so depending on their finishing position in the three leagues mentioned above (those who do not qualify for the European Rugby Champions Cup) or via promotion from lower leagues.
How Teams are Seeded for the Rugby Challenge Cup
Due to constant changes over the past few seasons of the Rugby Challenge Cup, the number of qualifying teams has fluctuated. The seeding principles have nevertheless generally remained the same with the number of clubs set to participate in the competition barring any changes standing at 20.
The standard practice for the tournament is to split the club into four tiers depending on how they place in their individual domestic leagues. Top-seeded clubs are naturally put in tier 1 along with two of the three second-seeded clubs who are selected at random via a draw.
Promoted teams from the individual domestic leagues are seeded last. England and France are allocated a maximum of seven slots in the competition but the number of clubs from the two countries that qualify for the Rugby Challenge Cup ultimately depends on how many teams qualify/fail to qualify for the top-flight European Rugby Champions Cup.
For their 2022-23 edition, five English clubs, six French clubs as well as nine additional clubs- eight of the bottom clubs in the United Rugby Championship (that involves teams from South Africa, Italy, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland) and one South African team which joins the competition via an invitation to bring the total number of teams to 20.
However, England could only field three clubs as two of the teams that had previously qualified (Wasps and Worcester Warriors) entered administration effectively ruling them out of both the Gallagher Premiership and the Rugby Challenge Cup.
Current Rugby Challenge Cup Format
With the above-mentioned developments and the reduction of competing clubs from 20 to 18, a number of changes were instituted for the Rugby Challenge Cup’s 2022-23 season. Unlike previously where the teams were divided into four tiers, clubs were separated into only two pools – A and B – depending on how they placed in their respective domestic leagues.
Clubs would then proceed to first play against clubs in their own pool with four points being awarded for a win and two points awarded for a draw. Teams that win by four or more tries or lose by seven points or fewer are also allocated a bonus point. The two pools adhere to the round-robin format where each club is required to play against each of the remaining clubs within their own pool.
As a competition that applies both the round-robin and knockout format, only the six top clubs from each of the two pools along with the ninth and tenth-placed clubs from the Heineken Champions Cup pools proceed to the Round of 16. 8 of the 16 teams would then proceed to the quarter-finals, with 4 progressing to the semi-finals, which decides the two finalists who will battle it out for the coveted Rugby Challenge Cup trophy.
In case there is a draw at the end of normal time during the knockout stages, an extra 10 minutes is allocated to each side (for a total of 20 minutes extra time). If the scores are still tied after the additional 20 minutes, the winner is determined to be the club with the most number of tries, or if still tied, the two clubs face off in a place kick competition to determine who advances.
Rugby Challenge Cup Rules
Like all other competitions that fall under the jurisdiction of World Rugby, the Rugby Challenge Cup adheres to the Laws of the Game (of rugby union) though with some variations or adjustments the EPCR deems fit.
Clubs are required to select a squad of between 19 and 23 players for every match of whom at least 6 must be front-row players in order to allow for replacements where need be. This provision is key since failure to field the minimum number of front-row players may cause a team to play with 14 players instead of the normal 15 in case a team lacks a replacement for a player who causes an uncontested scrum.
Clubs are required to select a squad during the First Registration of a season with no limit to the number of players who may be selected. Clubs may add a maximum of three players during the Second Registration. One of the three players must however be a front-row player.
A team may add a maximum of five players to its squad after the First Registration provided they are included before the knockout stage, that is, during the pool stage. At least three of the five players must be front-row players with the other two being from any position in order to allow for replacements in case the need arises.
In the rare instances that two or more clubs are tied on match points after the pool stages, their final position is determined by the following additional factors: the best aggregate points different from the group stages and if still tied; the number of tries scored, then the fewest number of players penalized for indiscipline, and finally, by drawing of lots.
How Home Advantage Works in the Rugby Challenge Cup
Like in all other sports, home advantage is important in rugby as it affords clubs various benefits such as the positive atmosphere that the home crowd creates, being able to prepare in familiar surroundings, and easier access to training and coaching staff.
In the Rugby Challenge Cup, home advantage is first utilized in the Round of 16 and is determined by the number of points clubs accrue during the pool stage. Home advantage is awarded to the top four teams from each pool.
The same principle (the clubs with the highest rankings/number of match points in the pool stages) is applied in the quarter-finals and semifinals stages regardless of which clubs get eliminated along the way. Home advantage ceases to apply for the finals as it is only one match that is held at a neutral venue.