French giants risk missing Champions Cup with play-offs on the cards

Paris (AFP) –


Top 14 presidents will meet on Wednesday to decide which French clubs will play in next season's European Champions Cup after the domestic campaign was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The current campaign was declared over last week after the French government said rugby and football could not resume until September.

The season was stopped with nine regular season rounds to go and league title holders Toulouse, three-time continental winners Toulon and table toppers Bordeaux-Begles could miss out on the elite European competition next season depending on which of the four options the bosses choose.

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

Potential play-offs could see Victor Vito's La Rochelle up against Handre Pollard's Montpellier. There could also be a re-run of last year's Top 14 final with Jerome Kaino's Toulouse potentially up against a Clermont side who could have new signing Kotaro Matsushima, the winger who starred for Japan at the World Cup last year, available.

Other avenues to be considered include taking last season's standings which would leave Toulon and Bordeaux-Begles in Europe's second-tier competition, the 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.

"Today, our position after 17 rounds doesn't allow us to have any grievances," he added.

Sports daily L'Equipe reported last week that next season's Champions Cup will change from its format of five pools of four teams to one with 18 outfits in one group starting in December.

According to the report, sides will play two different teams home and away with the top eight reaching the quarter-finals so as to save a weekend and play the knock-outs from the currently postponed season in the autumn.

"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 there will be no winner of the Top 14 for the first time since World War II.

France is due to lift its national lockdown on Monday, but experts are warning of the danger of a second wave of infections in a country where more than 25,000 people have died.

"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 centre 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.