In years gone by, we would be hitting on the most enjoyable week of the club rugby season; the Heineken Champions Cup back-to-back games.

Rounds three and four were always the make-or-break weeks of the European season, with familiarity breeding contempt and fuelling rivalries.

On the flip side it was often the point where teams would pack it in for the season. A couple of bad results in the early rounds would often see the English or French sides keeping a closer eye on their domestic title chances (or in some cases relegation fears) and send out the B team for back-to-back hammerings just before Christmas.

It's precisely the reason we have the tournament in its current guise.

It's a slight tweak from last season's Covid-effected plan, where 24 teams are split into two pools of 12, with each team playing two games at home and two games away.

The difference comes in the knockout rounds. Last season, the top four in each pool advanced to the two-legged quarter-finals (which were scrapped following a string of cancelled games), while this year the top eight in each pool will qualify for a Round of 16, again over two legs.

In doubling the number of teams in the knockout stages, the margin for error has been widened.

The logic is to keep more teams involved in the tournament for as long as possible, to eliminate the turkey-shoots we'd see towards the end of the pool stages in years gone by.

But in removing a few habaneros from the pot, the organisers have found themselves with a tournament that's tasting a bit bland.

Munster pulled off an incredible win away to Clermont Auvergne last December

It's what made Munster's sensational win against Clermont Auvergne at Stade Marcel Michelin 12 months ago even sweeter. With just four out of 12 teams in each Pool advancing to the quarter-finals, defeat in France would probably have left them needing two bonus point wins from their two remaining games in order to advance.

But this season, with eight out of 12 teams on each side of the draw securing knockout rugby, the jeopardy just isn't there. The fear of failure is often a wonderful motivator.

Losing bonus points for Munster and Ulster away from home this weekend would likely still leave them with a solid chance of reaching the last 16, while Leinster and Connacht will be favourites to start with victories at home to Bath and Stade Francais.

The unique circumstances Munster find themselves in for their meeting with Wasps in Coventry at least adds a layer of intrigue to the game. Time for someone to make themselves a hero.

The layout is also less engaging than its predecessor. With each team playing against different opposition, it can be a struggle knowing what games are on a given weekend. Using Leinster as an example, the URC leaders face Bath and Montpellier, with the French side going up against Exeter this weekend, and Bath taking on La Rochelle in round two.

"Instead, the two-legged Round of 16 will decide the quarter-finalists, with aggregate scores and home and away dynamic having the potential to provide incredible drama. But we shouldn't be waiting until April for the drama."

The imperfect format probably wouldn't seem so uninspiring if we hadn't become so used to what went before it.

In 2014 the old Heineken Cup rebranded, and cut themselves from 24 teams down to 20. Six pools of four became five pools of four, quality over quantity, and it raised the stakes dramatically.

With four teams removed, the scrap for the quarter finals heightened.

There were still dead-rubber games late in the pool stage, but the opening rounds were electric. The seeding system, which was based on domestic form rather than a European coefficient threw up some incredible pools; Munster, Racing 92, Saracens and Ospreys in 2019, Leinster, Toulouse, Bath and Wasps in 2018, Ulster, Wasps, La Rochelle and Harlequins the season before that.

It was simple, and it worked.

Leinster will be eager to put last season's semi-final defeat to La Rochelle behind them

This season's format is partly down to the fact that rugby is still playing catch-up from the disruption caused by the pandemic. Last season started late and ran long, which in turn effected this season.

And while this season's format will still be played over nine weekends just as it would have been pre-pandemic, playing the traditional competition in the available windows would have been clunky, leaving the final two rounds of pool games until early April.

Instead, the two-legged Round of 16 will decide the quarter-finalists, with aggregate scores and home and away dynamic having the potential to provide incredible drama. But we shouldn't be waiting until April for the drama.

On the pitch, this season's renewal looks to be wide open.

With only eight teams eliminated after the pool stage, it's likely to give the European heavyweights a greater chance to be there or thereabouts later in the competition.

As always Leinster are among the main contenders, and will be expected to have too much for both Bath and Montpellier in the opening rounds, which should see them securing a high seed for the knockout stage, putting them in prime position to challenge.

Toulouse look to be just ahead of Leinster as outright favourites, and with the defending champions likely to pick up maximum points against a Cardiff side that have been thoroughly depleted following their tour of South Africa, the five-time winners have an excellent foundation with which to build on.

Beaten finalists in 2018 and 2020, Racing 92 will once again be expected to contend late into the competition, and look bolstered by Gael Fickou's signing late last season, as well as the front row beef of versatile prop Trevor Nyakane.

Last season's surprise package La Rochelle will be favoured in their pool games against Glasgow and Bath, and Ronan O'Gara's side could well find themselves among the top seeds heading into the knockout stages. The new director of rugby has made clear their intention to compete in both domestic and European competition this season.

Leicester beat Connacht and Ulster in the Challenge Cup before losing the final to Montpellier

Of the English contenders, Premiership champions Harlequins look far removed from the team that was at its lowest ebb when they were beaten by Munster 12 months ago, while the Leicester Tigers could be the dark horse of the competition. Last season's Challenge Cup finalists have won eight from eight to begin the Premiership season, giving them the wiggle room to dive into the Heineken Champions Cup with both feet.

"Johann van Graan looks set to pick a highly competitive team for Sunday's game in Coventry, which in a strange way has created more buzz around a game for the province in several years."

Steve Borthwick's side play a brand of rugby that might not be to everyone's taste, with an emphasis on dominant forward play and tactical, territorial kicking, but with a pack full of South African power and George Ford spiraling bombs into the sky, they can be a match for anyone.

They're a side Connacht will face in rounds two and three, with Andy Friend's side desperate to make the knockout stages for the first time in the club's history. Even against the Leicester challenge, they're well in contention to make the last 16 should they start with a win against Stade Francais on Sunday.

For Munster, their tour of South Africa was always going to see them facing into a tricky start against Wasps, but nobody could have predicted to this extent. Despite that, Johann van Graan looks set to pick a highly competitive team for Sunday's game in Coventry, which in a strange way has created the most buzz around a game for the province in several years. They may not be among the main contenders, but the two-time champions are certainly at the top end of the second tier of teams, ready to pounce.

For Ulster, their campaign will likely rest on their games against the Northampton Saints either side of Christmas. Tomorrow's visit to Stade Marcel Michelin and Clermont Auvergne will be a greater challenge than the one faced by Munster in an empty stadium last season, particularly without Iain Henderson at the heart of their pack.

Having started slow in last season's competition they missed out on a third-straight knockout appearance. A return to the quarter-finals in 2022 would represent an excellent result from a tough set of pool games.

Verdict: Wins for Leinster, Munster and Connacht, but defeat for Ulster

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