At a swanky Dublin event yesterday afternoon the best and brightest of European, and South African, rugby discovered their fate in next season’s Champions Cup.
In a recent shake up in format, there are no longer six pools of four but instead two pools of 12. Teams now play a team from the other two major leagues in Europe – out of the Premiership, United Rugby Championship, and the Top14 – with the top teams qualifying.
London Irish are in the top flight of the competition for the first time since 2012 while Harlequins remain in the Champions Cup and Saracens return after their spell in the Championship and Challenge Cup. But just how do their paths to a potential final in the Irish capital?
After an excruciating exit at the round of 16 stage last season, Harlequins will be looking to progress further this season – though their path to the knockouts is a difficult one.
Their third placed finish in last season’s Premiership has earned them an away day to Paris – against French powerhouses Racing 92 – and a trip to Durban to play the Sharks.
Four South African teams joined the United Rugby Championship last season and the prize for finishing in the top eight is a spot in the higher level of… Europe.
It’s an issue that has been at the centre of debate in rugby circles but with clubs voting for their inclusion, there will be trips to Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria in this competition this season.
Last year’s Challenge Cup semi-finalists Saracens will this year feature in their first Champions Cup campaign since their relegation from the Premiership in 2020.
On the cards for the three-time winners is a trip to Edinburgh and a hop across the English Channel to reigning Challenge Cup holders Lyon.
In that latter fixture we could see a rekindling of Saracens with former player Joel Kpoku – who has taken the French league by storm since his move to France’s second city.
The north London club were in the same pool as Edinburgh in last season’s Challenge Cup – the Scottish side beat the Londoners south of the border and director of rugby Mark McCall’s men will be keen to banish that result from memory.
Saracens will be keen to return to winning ways in this competition having been one of the dominant forces of the last decade.
It’s hugely exciting not only for London Irish but central London sport, too, with their inclusion in the Champions Cup.
That said, the Brentford club have been handed an incredibly difficult draw in current Top14 champions Montpellier and current URC champions the Stormers.
Not only will the Exiles need to travel to South Africa but they’ll be playing in-form proven winners while doing it.
The three London clubs don’t have it easy in this year’s Champions Cup – but with a trio of sides playing in the best club competition in the world there will be ample time this December and next January to experience the most prestigious league in the world.