Georgia head into the men’s Rugby Europe Championship 2023 as defending champions, as they have done for 10 of the previous 11 editions.

But, while the identity of the defending champions might be familiar, there has been a tweak to the format and an increase in the number of teams from six to eight.

Rugby Europe Trophy 2021-22 winners Belgium have been promoted to the Championship alongside Germany and Poland, while Georgia, Romania, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands have retained their place in the top tier.

For three of those nations – Georgia, Romania and Portugal – the tournament will also form a vital part of their preparations for Rugby World Cup 2023 in France.

Ahead of this weekend’s kick-off, we give you the lowdown on the new format and what it means for the Rugby Europe Championship 2023.

What is new for 2023?

The Rugby Europe Championship has been expanded for the 2023 season, with the top three teams from the 2021-22 Trophy being promoted to make it an eight-team tournament.

Due to the increase in size, the format of the Championship has changed with those eight teams split into two pools of four.

Georgia, the Netherlands, Spain and Germany will compete in Pool A, while Romania, Portugal, Belgium and Poland have been drawn in Pool B.

Romania, Belgium and the Netherlands, meanwhile, head into the Championship with new-look coaching teams. The Oaks will be led by Eugen Apjok, while Mike Ford has taken charge of Belgium and Lyn Jones will oversee the Netherlands' campaign.

How will the new format work?

Every nation will play each team in their pool on a one-off round-robin basis, across three consecutive match weekends.

Following the conclusion of the pool phase, the top two teams from each pool will qualify for the semi-finals.

The team that wins Pool A will meet the Pool B runner-up, while the team that finishes top of Pool B will play the second-placed nation from Pool A.

Whoever wins those matches will then meet in the grand final on the weekend of 18 March, with the victor claiming the 2023 title.

The losing semi-finalists will also meet on the final weekend in a third-place play-off.

What happens to the teams that do not make the semi-finals?

All eight teams that will compete in the 2023  Championship are guaranteed to play five matches, as they would have been under the old six-team format.

The teams that finish third and fourth in their respective pools will compete in ranking semi-finals, with the third-placed teams in each taking on the bottom side from the opposite pool.

Whichever teams win those matches will advance to the fifth-place final, while the losers will play for seventh.

Will there be promotion and relegation under the new format?

Yes, although the current pools are locked in for two years.

At the end of that period, the team that finishes bottom of the cumulative standings will be relegated to the Rugby Europe Trophy.

That team will be replaced by the nation that finishes top of the combined 2022-23 and 2023-24 Trophy standings, subject to meeting participation criteria.

Ukraine kicked off this season’s men’s Trophy with a 27-22 defeat of Croatia in October, but it is Switzerland who currently lead the way, having beaten Sweden and Lithuania.

When will the Rugby Europe Championship 2023 take place?

This year’s Rugby Europe Championship will get underway in Bucharest on 4 February, when Rugby World Cup 2023 qualifiers Romania host newcomers Poland.

Later that day, Portugal – who will also compete at RWC 2023 in France – take on Belgium in Lisbon. The last time the teams met, in 2020, the hosts won 23-17 in the same city.

Defending champions Georgia, who have not lost a Rugby Europe Championship match since 2017, open their campaign against Germany in Tbilisi on 5 February. The teams last met four years ago, when the Lelos won 52-3.

The final match of the opening weekend will take place in Madrid, where Spain take on the Netherlands. Spain won 43-0 on the same ground 12 months ago.

The remaining pool phase matches will be played on the following two weekends. There will then be a fallow week before the semi-finals take place on the weekend of 4 March.

On the weekend of 18 March, the final round of matches will be held as the winner of the grand final is crowned champions.

Pool phase fixtures

4 February

Romania v Poland – Stadionul National Arcul de Triumf, 14:00 (GMT+2)
Portugal v Belgium, CAR Rugby do Jamor, 19:00 (GMT)

5 February

Georgia v Germany, Avchala Stadium, 13:00 (GMT+4)
Spain v Netherlands, Estadio Nacional Universidad Complutense, 12:45 (GMT+1)

11 February

Netherlands v Georgia, National Rugby Centre, 13:15 (GMT+1)
Poland v Portugal, Narodowy Stadion Rugby, 16:00 (GMT+1)
Belgium v Romania, Stade Nelson Mandela, 18:30 (GMT+1)

12 February

Germany v Spain, Fritz-Grunebaum-Sportpark, 14:30 (GMT+1)

18 February

Germany v Netherlands, Stadion Pichterich, 13:15 (GMT+1)
Poland v Belgium, Narodowy Stadion Rugby, 16:00 (GMT+1)
Spain v Georgia, Estadio El Malecón, 19:00 (GMT+1)

19 February

Portugal v Romania, TBC, 19:00 (GMT)