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Champions Cup overhaul planned after damaging defeat of weakened Bulls
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Champions Cup overhaul planned after damaging defeat of weakened Bulls

European rugby chiefs want to overhaul the Champions Cup schedule to avoid a repeat of last weekend’s damaging scenes in which the Bulls sent a weakened team for their quarter-final against Northampton and are lobbying participating leagues to agree.

The Bulls came in for widespread criticism and faced accusations of disrespecting the integrity of the competition after leaving 11 South Africa internationals at home before their trip to Franklin’s Gardens where they were outclassed 59-22 on Saturday. The Bulls head coach, Jake White, defended making 13 changes to his side on the basis of a growing injury list while also pointing to how the club would have to use eight different airlines to make the trip.

EPCR, the organisers of the European club competitions, is looking into the circumstances of that match but it is understood there is a sense of wider frustration at how the current schedule demands that the round of 16 and the quarter-finals are played on consecutive weekends, which in turn poses logistical headaches. It is understood EPCR has repeatedly lobbied its participating leagues – the Premiership, the Top 14 and the URC – to allow for a change to the schedule in order to guarantee maximum exposure and avoid clubs fielding weakened teams.

To date the leagues have not agreed to EPCR’s request but there remains hope that change could still be introduced next season with organisers said to be “frustrated” that the Champions Cup has already been squeezed from nine weekends to eight in recent years.

This is the second season that South African teams have taken part in the Champions and Challenge Cups, and privately senior figures admit that it has not been a smooth transition. But there is optimism that changes to the schedule will ensure that the South African sides hold the competitions in as much regard as their European counterparts.

Compounding the urgency for European chiefs, however, is that they are yet to agree a new TV deal in the UK for next season and one-sided knockout matches involving weakened teams – as seen at Northampton – do little to strengthen their hand. There is hope, however, that Harlequins’ thrilling victory in Bordeaux does present a stronger argument in their favour.

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Despite the logistical hurdles presented by expansion, EPCR is looking to further branch out. It is understood a franchise based in Spain is under consideration to join the Challenge Cup following the addition of the Georgian side Black Lion, who attracted a crowd of 17,233 for their January clash with Clermont – the highest attendance of this season’s competition.

Source: theguardian.com