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New dates announced for Ulster's Champions Cup knock-out run as World Super League plans mooted for international rugby

 

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Ulster are due to take on Toulouse in the quarter-finals.

Ulster are due to take on Toulouse in the quarter-finals.

�INPHO/Presseye/Pascal Pavani

Ulster are due to take on Toulouse in the quarter-finals.

Heineken Champions Cup organisers EPCR has confirmed the dates for the outstanding knock-out matches and the start of next season’s tournament.

Ulster and Leinster remain in the hunt for the trophy and will finally get to play their quarter-finals on the weekend of September 18.

Ulster, of course, are due to face Toulouse in France, while Leinster host Saracens. The other two quarter-final ties see Clermont welcome Racing 92 and Exeter play Northampton.

The semi-finals will take place a week later, with the final being held in Marseille on October 17.

EPCR has also confirmed that next season’s tournament format is under review, with a 24-team model the most likely result. It will kick off on the weekend of December 11.

All of the plans are contingent on governments allowing teams to travel, while EPCR is also monitoring the restrictions on gatherings before making an announcement on ticket refunds.

It is understood it is keeping an open mind on shifting the venue if it makes sense. For example, if two English teams qualify and restrictions remain in place it may not make sense to make them travel to France.

Leinster are due to take on Saracens in their quarter-final, while Ulster travel to Toulouse in mid-September.

Both teams are scheduled to come back on August 22 with two rounds of inteprovincial matches and will be involved when the PRO14 play-offs get under way on September 5 and the final takes place on September 12.

Unusually, the Champions Cup final will take place after the 2020/21 PRO14 season gets underway on October 3.

The decision to announce the start date for next season’s Champions Cup appears to put talk of shifting the season back until January on the back-burner as talks on the future schedule continue.

Reports in England suggest a biennial international Super League involving the top six teams in the world based on Six Nations and Rugby Championships finishes has emerged as the latest proposal for fixing the scheduling stalemate.

RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney, who is heavily involved in discussions on the ongoing project to align the calendar, has outlined the latest incarnation of the ‘Nations League’ concept that was voted down last year.

A meeting of unions and leagues failed to find agreement on the future structure of the rugby schedule last week and World Rugby have pledged to provide clarity in the next week as they look to re-arrange the matches postponed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to The Times, the Six Nations could lose one of its rest weekends as part of the new-look schedule. That would not be greeted favourably by the IRFU, but it may be the concession needed to avoid playing through the summer which it is also against.

The Heineken Champions Cup could also see its window reduced from nine to eight weekends and the mooted 24-team tournament for next season would appear to pave the way for that move.

The French and English clubs who are both dead set against playing through the summer months and handing the months of October and November over to the international game for the new competition.

A report commissioned by French clubs indicates that the shift would cost them between 30 and 40pc of their revenue.

And it suggests an alternative to World Rugby’s preference of moving the July window into October, keeping the season remains on similar lines, with the first three matches of the ‘Super League’ taking place in the Southern Hemisphere during the current July window and the finale being held in Europe in November.

The stakes are high ahead of the final round of talks, but it seems like the six-team tournament is a distinct possibility.

“I think that format (of three versus three) works quite well because it gives more meaning to the Six Nations matches earlier in the year,” Sweeney told the ‘I’ newspaper.

“I do find it exciting, and the players like the idea of a more meaningful structure in that autumn period.

“Regular competition between Northern and Southern Hemispheres, the fans would probably appreciate it.

“The autumn internationals have always been successful but this gives it more of an edge. If you were playing ­previously for third or fourth position in the Six Nations, it didn’t really mean much.”

According to The Times, one solution could see Japan plus South Africa or Fiji take part in an eight-nations competition in the Northern Hemisphere due to the travel restrictions currently in place in Australia and New Zealand.

Sweeney has consulted with Owen Farrell who, along with former All Black Conrad Smith, is representing players at the negotiating table.

Today’s reports do not address the thorny issue of promotion and relegation from the Six Nations and Rugby Championships, while the players are likely to have concerns over playing six-to-eight Test matches across two hemispheres in a short space of time.

In a further twist, the All Blacks are considering a lucrative cross-code international against Australia’s rugby league team.

All of this comes amidst the growing influence of private capital in the game, with the Southern Hemisphere sides all investigating their own scope for investment after CVC’s move into the European game.

New European dates

Quarter-finals: weekend of 18/19/20 September

Semi-finals: weekend of 25/26/27 September

Challenge Cup final: Friday, 16 October

Heineken Champions Cup final: Saturday, 17 October

Start of 2020/21 season: weekend of 11/12/13 December

Belfast Telegraph