French giants risk missing Champions Cup with playoffs on the cards

Top 14 presidents will meet on Wednesday to decide which French clubs will play in next season’s European Champions Cup.

Toulouse's Cheslin Kolbe (left) runs with the ball during the French Top-14 rugby union contest against Bayonne on February 29, 2020 in Bayonne. - AFP

On Wednesday, Top 14 presidents will meet to decide which French clubs will play in next season’s European Champions Cup after the domestic campaign was stopped due to the coronavirus.

League holder Toulouse, three-time continental winner Toulon and table topper Bordeaux-Begles could be absent depending on which of the four options the bosses choose, with the term stopped with nine regular season rounds to go. The current campaign was declared over last week due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the country as Prime Minister Edouard Philippe banned rugby and football until September.

The stand-out favourite scenario is to hold playoffs in September between the teams sitting between fifth and eighth place, sources have told AFP.

Victor Vito’s La Rochelle would play Handre Pollard’s Montpellier as well as possible a re-run of last year’s Top 14 final with Clermont, which could have new signing in Japan’s Kotaro Matsushima available to face Jerome Kaino’s Toulouse.

Other avenues to be considered include taking last season’s standings which would leave Toulon and Bordeaux-Begles in the second-tier Challenge Cup. “If it happens, we’ll adapt and play the match in the best conditions,” Montpellier coach Xavier Garbajosa told radio station France Bleu.

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“Today, our position after 17 rounds doesn’t allow us to have any grievances,” he added.

French sports daily L’Equipe reported last week that next season’s Champions Cup will change from its format of five pools of four to one with 18 outfits in one group starting in December. According to the daily, sides will play two different teams home and away with the top eight reaching the quarterfinals as to save a weekend and play the knockouts from the currently postponed season in the autumn.

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“The idea is to not have matches without anything at stake at the end of the pool stages,” Lyon president Yann Roubert told the paper.

No Top 14 winner

The chiefs’ decision about which half a dozen French outfits play in the Champions Cup will have to be validated by the executive board of the league which is likely to meet next week. The board, which includes French rugby federation president Bernard Laporte as well as bosses from the clubs, are expected to announce no winner of the Top 14 for the first time since the Second World War.

“It’s hard. We didn’t want this season to finish. I thought right until the end we would have knockouts in September,” Bordeaux-Begles’ Jean-Baptiste Dubie told AFP.

“But how can we play if we can’t control the spread of the virus. It feels unreal,” he added.