One often wonders when reading rugby journalism if everyone’s main source of information is each others’ articles. The latest factoid that seems to be doing the rounds is is that the four match pool format of the Champions Cup means there is no margin for error and every game is a must-win.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact one of the motivations for introducing the new format was to reduce the number of teams going into the last round with no chance of progression. So they made it as easy as possible, with 16 teams from 24 qualifying, and thus creating a whole new problem of loads of teams going into the last round already qualified.
Along with the fact that eight out of twelve teams progress, we have the added feature of the higher seeded teams never playing each other, so for the weaker six teams in each pool, all their games will be against teams from the stronger half, meaning that if all games were to go with seeding, six teams would have four wins each and the other six would have none, and two teams would advance to the last sixteen despite perhaps only having a bonus point or two to show for their endeavours. While this is unlikely to happen, I think it’s safe enough bet that at least one of the six teams that get the consolation prize of a Challenge Cup spot for finishing 9th-11th will do so having shipped four defeats.
But to get to the last sixteen of the main event, it’s reasonably likely that one win might do it, especially if it is accompanied by a bonus point here and there.
Of course the easiest way for Connacht to qualify would be to win all of our games, a feat that is eminently achievable, let’s not be defeatist, but just in case it goes awry, there are some results we need from some friendly allies to help us along.
Ultimately, to get through, a team has to get ahead of four others, and having seen the opening rounds of the various leagues, the obvious candidates would have been Cardiff, Scarlets, Wasps and Castres. As it happens, all of these teams’ chances are now affected one way or the other by the recent South African misadventure. While ideally we would not necessarily want to benefit from the misfortune of others (in the case of Scarlets’ forfeit and Cardiff’s uphill battle against Toulouse) we certainly wouldn’t want to suffer as a result, which may be the case if Munster were to drop points against Wasps or Castres, so let’s hope the neighbours pull off the coup. It’ll be one to look forward to while warming up after our game on Sunday.
Other than those four, Stade Francais are the other team that might not rack up the points, especially if Connacht do their own part of the task.
So by and large, throughout the pool stage, it is preferable for Connacht if Cardiff, Scarlets, Castres, Wasps and Paris lose, which by extension means that Munster, Toulouse, Bristol and Harlequins have our permission to win all around them, though this advice may change later on if we start racking up the points and fancy a higher seeding.
So for this weekend, Scarlets unluckily have already shipped a loss and Cardiff will likely struggle, Munster have a very good shot and the bookies have installed Harlequins as one-point favourites away to Castres, so that particular clean-sweep of favourable results is achievable.
Which all leaves Leicester’s trip to Bordeaux. Instinct might say you want a Bordeaux win, and that might have been the desired result under the old system, where an early defeat might demotivate a team, but this time it’s different. If Leicester win at the Chaban-Delmas, then should they beat Connacht at Welford the following week, they would be sitting pretty and less in need of points at the Sportsground in Round 3, meanwhile Bordeaux would travel to Parc y Scarlets with a greater need. Conversely a first defeat of the season for the Tigers would leave them hungry to make amends, so all-in-all a Leicester win is probably better.
But of course, the most important result is the one at the Sportsground. I started out by dismissing the talk of must-win games, but since this is Connacht’s most winnable game, they really must win it.
Pool B fixtures, with desired winner in bold:
Sat 13:00 Cardiff v Toulouse (Cardiff travel to Quins in Round 2)
Sat 15:15 Bordeaux v Leicester (Bordeaux go to Parc y Scarlets)
Sun 13:00 Connacht v Stade Francais (Paris entertain Bristol next)
Sun 15:15 Wasps v Munster (Wasps are away to Toulouse next week)
Sun 17:30 Castres v Harlequins (Castres visit Munster also)