Previously known as the Heineken Cup, Europe's premier rugby club championship is now called the European Rugby Champions Cup. We look at the competition's history and format.
The Champions Cup is Europe's biggest club rugby competition and is contested by teams from the countries that take part in the Six Nations championship (England, France, Italy, Ireland, Scotland, Wales). It is an annual competition.
Founded in 1995, the competition has been run by European Professional Club Rugby (ERCP) since 2014. The tournament was launched at the initiative of the then Five Nations Committee with the aim of providing a new professional rugby union competition for clubs and provinces. It was initially known as the Heineken Cup, or H Cup in France, on account of the fact it was sponsored by the Dutch company, the world's second-largest brewers - it was renamed the Champions Cup in 2014. That year also saw a change in the format of the Champions Cup, with the number of teams taking part being reduced from 24 to 20.
Between 1995 and 2014, the Heineken Cup saw several periods of domination. From 1999 to 2002 it was English clubs who reigned supreme, with Leicester Tigers leading the way. France and Stade Toulousain in particular held sway between 2003 and 2005. It was then the turn of Ireland's Munster and Leinster to take charge, with tournament wins respectively coming their way in 2006 and 2008 and in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
Since 2012 France's Toulon and England's Saracens have dominated the competition, winning it six times between them, with only Leinster breaking the sequence in 2018.Toulon won the title three years in a row between 2013 and 2015, while Saracens were victorious in 2016, 2017 and 2019.
The competition format changed in 2014, with the number of teams being cut from 24 to 20. Qualification systems vary from country to country. Before 2014, each country had a number of teams to select from. The system has since changed, with the current format being as follows:
- The top six teams in England's Aviva Premiership
- The top six teams in France's Top 14
- The top seven teams in the Pro 14. The Pro 14 is a competition featuring clubs from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.
The following criteria are used to determine the 20th team: 1. Champions Cup winner, if not already qualified. 2. European Rugby Challenge Cup winner, if not already qualified. 3. Challenge Cup losing finalist, if not already qualified. 4. Challenge Cup semi-finalist, if one has not already qualified (or the winner of a play-off between the semi-finalists, if both have not already qualified). 5. Highest ranked non-qualified club by virtue of league position from the same league as the Champions Cup winner.
The 20 teams contest a group stage followed by knockout rounds. The group stage sees them drawn into five pools of four. Teams play each other twice, home and away. The five group winners qualify for the quarter-finals along with the three best second-placed teams. The group winners are seeded one to five on the basis of their results and the three runners-up are seeded six to eight. This seeding has an impact on the rest of the competition. The teams seeded one to four will have the advantage of playing at home in the quarter-finals. The seeding format for the quarter-finals is 1v8, 2v7, 3v6 and 4v5. The four winners contest the semi-finals, the winners of which then advance to the final, to be played at a stadium determined before the start of the competition.
Over the years, the Champions Cup has been graced by some great clubs and players, who have made their mark on the competition.
Stade Toulousain: The joint most successful club in the history of the competition with four titles.
Leinster: The Irish province are the only other side to have won the tournament four times.
RC Toulon: The only club to have won the competition three times in a row.
Saracens: The reigning European champions, who won their third title in 2019.
There are two players in particular who have gone down in the history of the Champions Cup: Chris Ashton and Ronan O’Gara. England international Ashton is the competition's leading try scorer with 39 in all. Former Ireland international O’Gara boasts not one but two tournament records: the leading points scorer with 1,365 and the most appearances with 110.
So now you know the history of the European Rugby Champions Cup!