The group stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup were recently completed and the identity of the eight quarter finalists revealed. As many of you are aware the format of this year's competition changed from previous years with only five pools of four teams instead of six. The eight quarter finalists were still based on pool winners and best runners up however so it is interesting to make a comparison between this year's top 8 qualifiers and qualifiers from previous years. The table below lists the top 8 teams from this year and the previous five years of the competition.
It is clear that having a more condensed version of the competition with better quality teams has made each pool more competitive and reduced the chances of having runaway pool winners. For example in the 2010/11, 2011/12, 2012/13, 2013/14 competitions there was at least one pool winner who went through to the quarter finals undefeated. This year, all pool winners lost at least one match. But is this such a good thing? The one feature that made the old format so attractive was the fact that losing even one match had a very strong negative effect on your chances of qualification. So every match in the pool stages turned into a cup match. In the new format the ‘punishment’ in losing a match isn’t so great. Munster for example could still have qualified as one of the best runners up even though they lost three games, if they had taken a try bonus against Sale and a losing bonus against Saracens (there is an element of wishful thinking here as well being a Munster supporter).
What also comes out of this is that it may have become harder to knock out one of the bigger teams from the competition. Almost all teams who lost two matches or less still qualified for the quarter final stages, with the exception of Harlequins and Toulouse and that was only on points differential. Thus the bigger teams will probably need to be beaten three times for them to be knocked out at the pool stages. It looks to me that we are going to see roughly the same teams in the quarter final stages over the coming years. To me the competition has become more competitively imbalanced as a result of the new format.