Turn the calendar back a year and the integrity of Europe’s premier club competition, the Heineken Champions Cup, was facing a period of uncertainty.
Having already changed its format to bring a meaningful competition as a result of the Covid pandemic it was thrown into further disarray. Fixtures which could not be fulfilled due to Covid outbreaks within clubs saw points awarded by default.
After two rounds the inevitable happened, the remaining pool games were cancelled and qualification for the knockout stages was determined by standings after round two.
Fast forward to the present again and questions of integrity and uncertainty are once again to the forefront of this competition. With a new omicron variant raging across this pan European event you have to once again feel for those in charge of administering the competition.
Round ones and two have been completed, and already three games have been decided by default with clubs impacted by Covid outbreaks. Then, as regulations change across the continent, France puts up its barriers and clubs from within the UK cannot travel to forfeit games – while French clubs cannot travel over the Channel either. It led to five postponements.
One wonders where they are going to find dates to fulfil those games, given the packed seasons clubs already have? And the decision could be taken out of their hands if regulations continue to change in the current Covid situation. We are also braced for a potential challenge by clubs on the decision to cancel the other fixtures and award the match points by default under tournament rules.
Scarlets, Leinster and Ospreys have each been impacted in having a result decision go against them.
Each case is different, but the outcome was the same, the three URC teams had to forfeit the match 28-0 and five match points were awarded to their respective opposition. EPCR state at the end of their decision “EPCR would like to emphasise that awarding the match (to a team) is a tournament management measure with the objective of ensuring that all fixtures in the 2021/22 Heineken Champions Cup are accounted for, and not a sanction.”
Leinster probably have a strong case against the decision if they were to pursue it strongly, they were able to field a side for the game, but EPCRs Match Risk Assessment Committee, made up of medical doctors from EPCR’s Medical Advisory Group as well as an independent medical specialist with experience in virology, advised EPCR of its concerns following new positive Covid-19 test results from the Leinster playing squad and cancelled the match.
Irrespective of the outcome of challenges and what further action may be taken by EPCR, the Champions and Challenge Cups look certain to follow a similar fate to last year and be rejigged again – at least there is a blueprint.
However, in the grand scheme of things, a game of rugby is not all that important.
There were, of course, some games played in round two, three Irish Provinces were involved in the handful of games that went ahead.
Ulster and Munster again enjoyed success, backing up wins on the road with home success over Northampton and Castres successfully. Connacht picked up a losing bonus point at Welford Road, giving the in-form Leicester Tigers a good run for their money.
Ulster secured a bonus point win over Northampton Saints at Kingspan Stadium, winning 27-22.
If we turn the pages back a year ago, Ulster had completed their first two rounds with two loses and three points before the decision to halt the pool stages.
They missed out on progressing in the Champions Cup by a point and instead were placed in the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup, which to be fair worked out reasonably well for them as they reached the semi-finals.
Connacht, too, also had suffered two defeats in the opening rounds and headed off to what was familiar territory for them in the Challenge Cup.
Flick back to 2021, both Ulster and Connacht are in excellent positions to ensure progression to the knockout stages if the plug was again pulled early.
Indeed Ulster would have achieved what Dan McFarland wanted in the pool stages: a top four finish in Pool A!
As I said in my column two weeks ago, it was important to come out of the blocks fast when Europe kicked-off. The chaos of last season looks set to follow on this term, but it has worked out better for some and few fans of Ulster, Munster, Connacht and even Leinster – they are in the top eight in Pool A – will complain too much if Europe ends up following the enforced pathway of last season.