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Champions Cup: Different format for 2023/24, but same contenders in La Rochelle, Leinster, Toulouse, Munster?

The Champions Cup returns with pool fixtures this Friday, Saturday and Sunday; we explain what's changed in terms of the tournament's format, what the knockout rounds will look like and provide pool-by-pool guides

Crowley, Alldritt, Ringrose
Image: Munster, holders La Rochelle and Leinster will once again harbour dreams of Champions Cup glory this season

The premier club competition in rugby returns this weekend in the form of the Champions Cup, but it does so in a new format as the strongest clubs in Europe - and South Africa - face off.

La Rochelle are seeking a third European Cup title in as many years, and should they do so, will become just the second club in history to achieve that, after Toulon in 2013-15.

Can Leinster finally get over the line with another triumph after three losses from their last three finals? And what of Toulouse? The European aristocrats, who hold a record five European Cups, will likely have to do without skipper and talisman Antoine Dupont for most of the season, owing to his want for increased involvement in Sevens ahead of the Paris Olympics.

URC champions Munster and Premiership champions Saracens will be determined to return to former glories, and could we even see a new winner? Racing 92 have built a phenomenal squad, while South Africa's Bulls and Stormers will provide stern tests for anyone, with the Springboks they can call upon.

20 May 2023; Gregory Alldritt, left, and Romain Sazy of La Rochelle lift the trophy after the Heineken Champions Cup Final match between Leinster and La Rochelle at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Image: La Rochelle clinched back-to-back Champions Cup titles last season after a stunning comeback win against Leinster in Dublin

What's changed?

Gone - thankfully - are the the confusing two mega-pools of 12 first adopted during the Covid season of 2020/21, and retained for a further two seasons. In their place is a return to smaller pools, but still in a format we've never seen before.

Whereas the old Heineken Cup and then Champions Cup was structured as six pools of four for 24 teams, and then five pools of four for 20 teams, the 2023/24 Champions Cup will see four pools of six teams.

Conventionally in Europe (pre-Covid), clubs would play the other three teams within their pools home and away, with the pool winners and either two or three of the best-placed runners-up (two when 24 clubs, three when 20) progressing to make the quarter-finals.

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In the new structure, teams will play a total of four games against clubs within their pool from different leagues, either home or away, and will not face the club within their pool from the same league at all.

Image: The Champions Cup pool stages have reverted to smaller pools, but in a form not seen before: four pools of six

So for example, in Pool 1 this season, Premiership champions Saracens will not face Bristol at any point despite both being in the same pool. Instead, Saracens will face Top 14 duo Bordeaux-Begles (away) and Lyon (home), and URC pair Connacht (home) and the Bulls (away).

When all four rounds of pool fixtures are finished, the top two clubs from each of the four pools will have a home last-16 tie in April, while each of the third and fourth-placed teams will also progress to the knockouts.

The fifth-place finishers will drop down into the Challenge Cup, and the sixth-place finishers' European seasons will end.

What do the knockout rounds look like?

Home advantage during the Champions Cup knockouts all the way through to the final at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday May 25 will be decided via seedings from performances during the pool stages.

As during the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup pool stages, sides can attain a try bonus-point for scoring four or more tries in addition to four points for a match victory, while they can also claim a losing bonus-point by being within seven or less points in defeat.

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium rugby
Image: The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London will play host to the 2024 Champions Cup final

The sides will be ranked 1-16 after the pool stages in terms of points acquired, and then points difference, tries scored etc. The side with the most pool points (or ranked highest by other means) will face the side ranked 16th, second vs 15th and so on. The top eight sides will earn a home last-16 tie, and should they all progress, the top four will then have a home quarter-final.

The highest-ranked sides left at the semi-final stage will have home country advantage.

Pool-by-pool guides: Same old contenders or the year for a new name on the trophy?

Pool 1

Bristol Bears

As mentioned above, Premiership winners Saracens are perhaps the headline act in Pool 1 and favourites to top it. In saying that, though, they face a number of slippery ties.

None more so than agasint Bordeaux-Begles, who with the likes of Matthieu Jalibert, Yoram Moefana, Louis Bielle-Biarrey and new signing Damian Penaud in their backline, could argue they have the most dangerous backline attack in the competition.

Image: Saracens are the reigning Premiership champions and boast an impressive squad

Connacht too displayed their quality to reach the URC semi-finals last season, and with the likes of centre Bundee Aki and wing Mack Hansen two of the standout players at the autumn's Rugby World Cup, will not be a simple proposition. The Bulls, meanwhile, are the strongest South African side so far this season, sitting third in the URC.

Lyon and Bristol may have struggled in terms of starts to their respective domestic campaigns, but have talent among their ranks to cause a stir too.

Pool 2

Racing 92

Pool 2 contains three former winners in Toulouse, Bath and Ulster, two former runners-up in Racing 92 and Cardiff, and Premiership high-flyers Harlequins in a massively intriguing group.

The most successful club side in the tournament's history with five titles, Toulouse last lifted the trophy in 2021, but are reigning French champions, having defeated European holders La Rochelle in last season's Top 14 final. Toulouse have a magnificent squad, but could be hurt by absentees this year, with fly-half Romain Ntamack out with a serious knee injury, and Dupont likely to be absent totally from January.

Image: Toulouse, five-time European Cup winners, lifted the Top 14 title last season, beating La Rochelle

Bath make a return to Europe's top table after a season away, with Johann van Graan and co feasting on the demise of Wasps and Worcester to prise away talent such as Alfie Barbeary, Ollie Lawrence, Ted Hill, Fergus Lee-Warner and Elliott Stooke, while also signing Scotland maverick Finn Russell from Racing 92.

If there is a side to win the trophy who hasn't before, favourites for that will undoubtedly be current Top 14 leaders Racing 92. Former England and Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster has taken charge and brought in star quality in the form of Siya Kolisi, Henry Arundell and Josua Tuisova. Added to the likes of Gael Fickou, Cameron Woki, Trevor Nyakane and many more, they will be very tough to beat.

racing 92, Kolisi, Lancaster
Image: New Racing 92 head coach Stuart Lancaster has built an impressive playing group, with South Africa captain Siya Kolisi one of a number of signings

Ulster's URC form is pretty poor, but like Racing they contain a very powerful squad hoping to land a punch in Europe this time around. Should they stutter and fail as in recent seasons, head coach Dan McFarland will likely be on the way out. And finally Cardiff, the only Welsh side to make it after a season of financial struggle for the regions, qualification for the knockouts would be a top achievement.

Pool 3

Glasgow Warriors
Exeter Chiefs
Northampton Saints

Two-time European champions Munster lifted silverware for the first time since 2011 last season, when they embarked on a remarkable end-of-season run away from home to clinch the URC trophy, beating the Stormers away in Cape Town in the final.

27 May 2023; The Munster celebrate with the cup after winning the United Rugby Championship Final match between DHL Stormers and Munster at DHL Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa. Photo by Nic Bothma/Sportsfile
Image: Munster secured their first silverware since 2011 with a remarkable late away run all the way to the URC title in South Africa

Graham Rowntree's men will be seeking to top Pool 3, with winnable fixtures to come against Bayonne at home from the Top 14 and Premiership duo Exeter (away) and Northampton (home). A trip to Toulon - Challenge Cup winners last season, and second in the Top 14 this - will prove a very tough fixture, but if Munster can force their way to the top of this pool, and with that set up potential home last-16, quarter-final and even semi-final ties, count them as dark horses to win the lot.

Fellow URC side Glasgow will push hard to progress at the top of the pool as well, while Toulon will fancy their chances. Northampton have been playing some superb stuff in the Premiership too, and all-in-all it's a very open group on paper.

19 May 2023; The RC Toulon team celebrate with the cup after the EPCR Challenge Cup Final
Image: Toulon won the Challenge Cup last season and are currently second in the Top 14

Pool 4

La Rochelle
Stade Francais
Leicester Tigers
Sale Sharks

Pool 4 sees a repeat of the last two Champions Cup finals, as La Rochelle and Leinster once again do battle. Ronan O'Gara's men have had Leinster's number the last three seasons, knocking them out in the semis in 2021, while storming back to win in two successive finals from behind in 2022 in Marseille and 2023 in Dublin.

20 May 2023; Dan Sheehan
Image: Leinster must travel to face La Rochelle in France on Sunday, as two of the tournament favourites meet in the pool stages

The opening weekend of this season sees Leinster - now without the retired Johnny Sexton of course - travel to face La Rochelle at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in a European humdinger. Expect both to progress, owing to the format, but a marker could be set early.

20 May 2023; La Rochelle
Image: Former Munster out-half Ronan O'Gara (middle), has routinely conquered Leinster as head coach of La Rochelle

Elsewhere in the pool, Premiership leaders Sale Sharks will look to make a mark in Europe, having been building something over recent years under Alex Sanderson, while Leicester Tigers will be intent on performing better against Leinster, who have knocked them out pretty easily during the last two campaigns.

Stade Francais are somewhat of a wildcard, who could storm to the top of the standings or show disinterest in equal measure, while South Africa's Stormers - URC runners-up last season - are another wildcard, packed with quality. The travel involved for the SA clubs is a clear hindrance to their success so far, however.

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