Local derbies, individual match-ups and a new format are all part of the Champions Cup's return

Champions Cup last 16: Five things to look out for

After nearly three months away, the European Champions Cup returns this weekend with the round of 16.

The matches, played over two legs on consecutive weekends, are packed with storylines. A new format, local derbies and superb sub-plots ensure that there will be drama across Europe.

Here are five things to look out for during the Champions Cup last 16.

A new format

For the first time in the competition’s history, knockout matches will be played over two legs and the winner decided by aggregate score. Though the tension and unpredictability found in one-off games are slightly reduced, the new format should provide some fascinating tactical battles.

Can the hosts in the first leg be satisfied with a win alone, or is a comfortable margin of victory required? Likewise, does the away side simply try and keep the opening match as close as possible, even if that means drastically changing their style? And in the second leg, how should a team holding a big lead approach the contest, knowing that their opponent must chase the game to overturn the deficit? These questions are fascinating and, because the two-leg format is so alien, currently unanswerable.

Take Exeter Chiefs’ tie with Munster as an example. The Devon outfit have the first leg at home and will back themselves to win, but what lead will they want to take to Limerick? Munster have lost once at Thomond Park this season and, with their history of comebacks in the competition, the Chiefs would need a huge advantage to feel safe.

Intra-country clashes

While the Champions Cup allows the best clubs from across leagues to do battle, clashes between clubs from the same country can be just as enthralling. Leinster’s encounters with Munster in the 2000s and Toulon’s final victories over Clermont Auvergne are part of European rugby legend.

This year’s last 16 could provide similarly iconic moments, as eight sides take their domestic rivalries into the European sphere. The round begins on Friday night at the Sportsground, where a raucous atmosphere is expected for Connacht’s game with Irish rival Leinster. The following day, Sale and Bristol face-off in an all-Premiership clash.

However, the best one-country matches may be found across in France. Paris bragging rights are on the line this Sunday, as Racing 92 take on Stade Français in the sides’ first meeting in European competition.

Such an enticing storyline is difficult to top, but La Rochelle’s tie with Bordeaux-Bègles might do so. Tensions spilt over during the teams’ tempestuous Top 14 clash last weekend, resulting in Bordeaux coach Christophe Urios aiming a slap at opposite number Ronan O’Gara.

“He chambered me like he always does,” Urios said afterwards. “This guy is unbearable.”

Ronan O'Gara at La Rochelle

Ronan O’Gara will reacquaint himself with Christophe Urios (Getty Images)

That the sides will resume their rivalry on each of the next two weekends is ideal for rugby fans partial to the melodramatic.

Match-ups galore

The eight ties also serve up an abundance of intriguing match-ups which could decide who makes the quarter-finals.

Naturally, the quartet of one-country ties are full of intriguing battles. Connacht’s Bundee Aki will take on Leinster’s Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose in the battle of Ireland’s top centres. England’s young scrum-halves, Bristol’s Harry Randall and Sale’s Raffi Quirke, could go head-to-head (with some added Faf de Klerk in the mix). In Bordeaux’s match with La Rochelle, French Grand Slam heroes Cameron Woki and Gregory Alldritt lock horns in the back five.

Individual battles can be found in all the matches, though.

Can Ulster scrum-half John Cooney, outstanding when he played in the group stage, compete with Toulouse superstar Antoine Dupont? How will Premiership leaders Leicester, whose success has been built on dominance up front, go about handling a Clermont back-line sadly missing Damian Penaud, but still featuring Kotaro Matsushima, George Moala and Alivereti Raka? Can Montpellier, the side who shipped 89 points at Leinster in the pool stage, thwart a free-flowing Harlequins conducted by Marcus Smith?

It is these high-profile sub-plots that so often prove decisive in knockout rugby.

A return to normality (fingers crossed)

After Covid-19 wreaked havoc with the previous two tournaments, this season’s Champions Cup was billed as the year when the competition could return to some form of normality. Considering the tournament followed an Autumn Nations Series played in packed stadiums across Europe, this sentiment appeared valid.

It did not quite transpire that way in the pool stages. The tournament began in mid-December, just as the Omicron variant had started to send Covid-19 cases soaring across Europe. Suddenly, organisers were struggling to stage games at all, as cross-border travel regulations were frantically changed and restrictions on mass gatherings were reimposed in certain countries. The result was a tournament that mirrored its two most recent iterations – complete with cancelled games, dozens of players in quarantine and matches played in eerily empty stadia.

It would be foolish to say with certainty that Covid will not influence the last 16, but the Champions Cup is as close to returning to pre-pandemic normality as it has ever been. Since the pool stages, rules on testing, self-isolation and overseas travel have been relaxed, meaning a scenario where a team has half a squad in quarantine or, worse still, is unable to fulfil a fixture appears highly unlikely.

And, best of all, the fans of both sides can fill stadiums across all countries too. The unique settings of the Champions Cup help make the competition special and they have been conspicuously absent from the knockout rounds for far too long. The atmosphere at venues such as the Stade Marcel-Michelin, Thomond Park and Paris La Defense Arena, will be something to behold.

Can the French be stopped?

French dominance in Europe is nothing new. With their big spenders and ultra-competitive domestic structure that stretches well below the Top 14, their sides are set up for success and it is no surprise to see seven of them in the last 16.

Yet, for the first time in over a decade, France are also thriving in the international sphere. Last month’s Six Nations Grand Slam win confirmed their status as the northern hemisphere’s leading rugby nation and, with a squad packed with players in their prime and a home World Cup next year, they are in the best position possible to rule the sport.

As usual, they have it all at club level, too. The last 16 line-up features defending champions and traditional heavyweights Toulouse, alongside nouveau riche clubs like Montpellier and Racing. There are plenty of strong clubs on the other side of The Channel, but predicting that the Champions Cup will stay in France is the logical call.

And if it does, the French’s burgeoning, all-encompassing dominance will go up another level.

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