The Challenge Cup will also have a different look next season

New European Champions Cup format for 2020-21

Next season’s European Champions and Challenge Cups will have a different look as tournament organisers alter the formats in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 2020-21 Heineken Champions Cup will expand to feature 24 clubs, instead of the normal 20, while the Challenge Cup will start with 14 clubs rather than the usual 20.

The tournaments will take place over eight weekends, with four rounds of pool matches followed by the knockout stages. In the Champions Cup this will involve two-legged quarter-finals followed by the semi-finals and final.

In the Challenge Cup there will be a ‘round of 16’ involving eight clubs dropping down from the Champions Cup followed by quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.

Here are more details on the new European Champions Cup format for 2020-21…

Who has qualified for the 2020-21 Champions Cup?

The top eight-ranked teams in each of the Gallagher Premiership, Guinness Pro14 and Top 14  qualified for Europe’s elite event.

The Top 14 season was cancelled earlier this year due to the pandemic and the top eight have been taken from that point: Bordeaux-Begles, Lyon, Racing 92, Toulon, La Rochelle, Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse and Montpellier.

The eight teams that have qualified via the Pro14 are the top four clubs in each conference (excluding the South African sides) when the league was suspended in March. So the teams that will compete in the 2020-21 Champions Cup are: Leinster, Edinburgh, Munster, Ulster, Scarlets, Glasgow Warriors, Connacht and Dragons.

The eight Premiership teams that have qualified are: Exeter Chiefs, Wasps, Bristol Bears, Bath, Sale Sharks, Harlequins, Gloucester and Northampton Saints.

What’s the 2020-21 Champions Cup tournament format? 

The 24 clubs were split into four tiers based on their league position/performance in the knockout stages of their league, with the Premiership and Pro14 finalists ranked as one and two in their leagues.

  • Tier One (six clubs): 1st and 2nd ranked clubs from each league – Bordeaux-Begles, Lyon, Leinster, Ulster, Exeter, Wasps.
  • Tier Two (six clubs): 3rd and 4th ranked clubs from each league – Toulon, Racing 92, Edinburgh, Munster, Bristol, Bath.
  • Tier Three (six clubs): 5th and 6th ranked clubs from each league – La Rochelle, Clermont Auvergne, Connacht, Scarlets, Sale Sharks, Harlequins.
  • Tier Four (six clubs): 7th and 8th ranked clubs from each league – Toulouse, Montpellier, Glasgow, Dragons, Gloucester, Northampton.

Clubs were then drawn into two groups of 12, Pool A and Pool B, with clubs from the same league and tier unable to be in the same pool.

The pool stages will consist of four fixtures, two home and two away, between clubs in the same pool, but they cannot play teams from their own league.

Clubs in Tier One and Tier Four in the same pool but not in the same league will play each other home and away.

Clubs in Tier Two and Tier Three in the same pool but not in the same league will play each other home and away.


Here is the full 202-21 Champions Cup pool draw, with clubs’ opponents in brackets…

Pool A

  • Bordeaux-Bègles (Dragons, Northampton Saints)
  • Leinster Rugby (Montpellier, Northampton Saints)
  • Wasps (Dragons, Montpellier)
  • Bath (La Rochelle, Scarlets)
  • Edinburgh (La Rochelle, Sale Sharks)
  • RC Toulon (Sale Sharks, Scarlets)
  • La Rochelle (Bath Rugby, Edinburgh)
  • Sale Sharks (Edinburgh, RC Toulon)
  • Scarlets (Bath Rugby, RC Toulon)
  • Dragons (Bordeaux-Bègles, Wasps)
  • Montpellier (Leinster, Wasps)
  • Northampton Saints (Bordeaux-Bègles, Leinster)

Pool B

  • Exeter Chiefs (Glasgow Warriors, Toulouse)
  • Lyon (Glasgow Warriors, Gloucester)
  • Ulster (Gloucester, Toulouse)
  • Bristol Bears (Clermont Auvergne, Connacht)
  • Munster (Clermont Auvergne, Harlequins)
  • Racing 92 (Connacht, Harlequins)
  • Clermont Auvergne (Bristol Bears, Munster)
  • Connacht (Bristol Bears, Racing 92)
  • Harlequins (Munster, Racing 92)
  • Glasgow Warriors (Exeter Chiefs, Lyon)
  • Gloucester (Lyon, Ulster)
  • Toulouse (Exeter Chiefs, Ulster)

So defending champions Exeter will play Glasgow and Toulouse, runners-up Racing face Connacht and Harlequins while Challenge Cup winners Bristol Bears have been drawn with Clermont and Connacht.

The first rounds of fixtures will be on the weekends of 11-13 and 18-20 December with the latter two rounds on 15-17 and 22-24 January.

The usual match point system applies – four for a win and two for a draw, with a bonus point for scoring four or more tries and losing by seven points or fewer. If clubs are level on match points at the end of the pool stage, they will be split on points difference, then tries scored, then fewest players suspended for disciplinary incidents and then, if still equal, by drawing lots.

The quarter-finals will be played home and away between the top four clubs in Pool A and the top four clubs in Pool B.

  • QF1: Number 1-ranked club in Pool A  v Number 4-ranked club in Pool B
  • QF2: Number 2-ranked club in Pool B  v Number 3-ranked club in Pool A
  • QF3: Number 2-ranked club in Pool A  v Number 3-ranked club in Pool B
  • QF4: Number 1-ranked club in Pool B  v Number 4-ranked club in Pool A

The semi-finals (Winner QF1 v Winner QF2 and Winner QF3 v Winner QF4) will be played over one leg, with the highest-ranked club from the pool having home country advantage. The final will then be held in Marseille on Saturday 22 May 2021.

Who has qualified for the 2020-21 Challenge Cup?

The 14 teams in the Challenge Cup consist of four from the Pro14 (Benetton, Cardiff Blues, Ospreys and Zebre), six from the Top 14 (Bayonne, Castres, Brive, Pau, Agen and Stade Francais) and four from the Premiership (Worcester Warriors, London Irish, Leicester Tigers and Newcastle).

What’s the 2020-21 Challenge Cup tournament format? 

The Challenge Cup will start with a preliminary stage of four rounds of matches, with clubs playing two at home and two away.

The 14 teams will be split into two tiers of seven based on their league position (Newcastle, who are promoted to the Premiership, would be ranked 12th).


Top 14 clubs ranked 9th, 10th and 11th

Premiership clubs ranked 9th and 10th

Pro14 clubs ranked 9th and 10th


Top 14 clubs ranked 12th, 13th and 14th

Premiership clubs ranked 11th and 12th

Pro14 clubs ranked 11th and 12th

Flying in: Adam Radwan and Newcastle Falcons will play in the Challenge Cup (Getty Images)

Clubs won’t play against teams in the same tier or against teams from the same league and the same match point system as the Champions Cup applies.

The top eight-ranked clubs from the Challenge Cup (CC) preliminary stage will move onto the ‘round of 16’, where they will be joined by the clubs ranked from fifth to eighth in Pool A and Pool B at the end of the Champions Cup (HCC) group stage.

This is the format of matches:

CC 1 (ranked 1) v HCC 8 (ranked 12)

CC 2 (ranked 2) v HCC 7 (ranked 11)

CC 3 (ranked 3) v HCC 6 (ranked 10)

CC 4 (ranked 4) v HCC 5 (ranked 9)

HCC 4 (ranked 8) v CC 5 (ranked 13)

HCC 3 (ranked 7) v CC 6 (ranked 14)

HCC 2 (ranked 6) v CC 7 (ranked 15)

HCC 1 (ranked 5) v CC 8 (ranked 16)

The winners will advance to the quarter-finals, with home venue advantage awarded to the highest-ranked clubs. The same applies for the semi-finals, with the final to be played in Marseille on Friday 21 May 2021.

Can’t get to the shops? You can download the digital edition of Rugby World straight to your tablet or subscribe to the print edition to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Follow Rugby World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.