Back in the Challenge Cup

So it turns out the other results went in our favour on the last weekend of the URC so all we needed was that elusive bonus point win against Leinster. In any case unless we won the league we were headed to exactly where we are now – the Challenge Cup.

And if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s where we belong for the moment.

There is the usual lack of confirmation from EPCR of anything beyond the shape of the ball but we can probably work on the assumption that the format will be much the same as this season, with two invitational teams making three pools of six. Like in the Champions Cup there will be one team that we don’t play, which will be a URC team, but since two of the pools will have to have three URC teams, there is a good chance that we will play one of the other seven.

Unofficially Black Lion appear to be in again as the only Super Cup team so we can probably assume Cheetahs are back in as well. Gloucester and Newcastle will again be the only English representatives, while the French contingent has yet to be finalised pending the last weekend of the Top 14 and the Pro D2 final and promotion play-off.

Lyon and Bayonne are the only French teams definitely confirmed, along with the lowest two of Racing/Perpignan/Castres/Pau/Clermont and the better two of Vannes/Grenoble/Montpellier. We will play two French teams, probably one home and one away, though that is not guaranteed, for example this season Treviso played two French teams at home while Zebre went there twice.

Our other two opponents will be some combination of an English team, an invitational team and a URC team.

In the final shake-up in France there are some interesting encounters. Pau play Perpignan, with a win putting Perpignan through to the Champions Cup (and maybe the play-offs) while a Pau win would give them a chance. Clermont should win at home to Montpellier, who have nothing to play for and that would put them in the running for the top eight. Castres travel to Bayonne, who also have nothing on the line and a win would see them off our radar, whereas Racing travel to La Rochelle needing a win to secure a barrage spot. They will probably be in the Champions Cup regardless (Top 14 uses head-to-head results as the first tie-breaker and it’s too complicated to look it all up) but a losing bonus would secure it.

Personally I would like to avoid Racing and Clermont. Both their stadiums are on the bucket list but I’d prefer to face them in a Champions Cup sometime. This trophy is winnable so let’s avoid the heavyweights for now. So best if Clermont win and Racing get the LBP. I’d prefer to have Castres and Perpignan in, so best if they lose on the road. In the Pro D2, Vannes is the one we want in the final, with the loser beating Montpellier in the play-off.

Last season the draw was unseeded, with only rules about leagues and countries, but we’ll see what the EPCR come up with.


Red Zone 2

Latest prediction: Pau, unless I’m an idiot and got it all wrong!

Live Update: Bayonne looking good against Exeter. The bonus point try means they technically only need a draw to get ahead of Connacht in the seedings and send us to Pau. Dragons trailing Sharks and not looking anywhere near likely to get the bonus point win they need to affect matters.

Surprise two late tries from Sale put them ahead of Connacht in the seedings. If Bayonne beat Exeter, we will play Pau (or Dragons if they give Sharks a thumping). Otherwise we go to Swansea.


OK, nearly there. We can’t get into the Champions Cup now obviously.

I suppose for most people we’d like to avoid having to go to Johannesburg, so best if Lions beat Ospreys well and get them out of contention.

We’d probably also like to avoid Edinburgh, so best if either Sale get at least a bonus point or Bayonne win. But if Dragons beat Sharks, Edinburgh are out of the picture anyway.

So first up, a big Lions win and something for Sale.

I’m still sticking with Montpellier as my prediction, but there are many variables.


Pinky’s Red Zone

Pinky’s Live Gut Prediction: Montpellier (but possibly Edinburgh or Pau, maybe even a trip to Johannesburg or Newport)

So Connacht are away in Europe on the weekend of April 6th, which is a week after Benetton away in the URC on Easter weekend. We have all been given that week off by Presidential Decree and are going to both games, but where are we going?
This blog will confuse the hell out of you until I figure it out … Stay tuned.

First, the easy bit. We get into the Champions Cup last 16 if Saracens get nothing at home to Lyon.

Otherwise we go into the last 16 of the Challenge Cup, where we would play one of the teams ranked 5 to 8, namely the lower ranked two second placed teams and the higher ranked two third placed teams.

But Ulster will be fifth in Pool 2 and are below Connacht, so we can’t get the better of the second-placed teams.

So unless the fifth placed teams in both the other Pools get ahead of us, we will play a third-placed Challenge Cup team. That would require Bayonne to beat Exeter at home and La Rochelle to beat Sale away (both tomorrow).

Clermont are definitely second in Pool 3 but will almost certainly be the best second-placed team and will thus play another Challenge Cup team. There may be some weird result that lets Benetton or Montpellier ahead of them but I’m fairly confident a trip to the Auvergne is impossible. Likewise Edinburgh are third Pool 3, but look likely to be the lowest ranked third-placer and thus out of the picture, which is no harm as it’s always a nice trip but we’ve already been there, lost and nearly lost toes to frostbite (though that is less of a risk in April).

If Cheetahs win away to Oyonnax in Pool 1, they will be second and Pau third. If they lose with a bonus point, those will be reversed. No bonus point and Zebre will be third. Dragons can still come into play by beating Sharks. If that happens the holiday is cancelled (no offence Newport). We could in theory play Sharks in that case as they would likely be second.

Benetton will probably top Pool 2 if they beat Montpellier into second, with the winner of Lions v Ospreys third (or sneaking into second). If Montpellier win, Benetton will be third, creating the possibility of back-to-back games in Treviso.

Live Updates:

Pool 1: Cheetahs romping, so they will go top overnight. If Sharks win tomorrow, they will go top and it will be Cheetahs or Pau. If Dragons win, Cheetahs will stay top and it will be Sharks or Dragons.

Half-time: Oyonnax fighting back. Cheetahs Red Card. If Cheetahs get 1-2 points, the Clan could be on the way to Amsterdam.

45 Mins: TBP secured for Cheetahs, they can lose by up to 16 points and still stay ahead of Zebre. As it stand they are top but can be caught by Sharks.

87 Mins: Unreal! Two bonus points for Cheetahs. They will now be the worst third placed team or else fourth, so they will be away (I think). That puts Edinburgh back in the frame.

Pool 2: Benetton in control so may go top so it should be Montpellier or and the winner of Lions v Ospreys. Likely Lions in Joburg and they may even overhaul Montpellier with a big win, making a trip to Southeast France likely.

47 Mins: Montpellier back into it, so the Settimana del Prosecco is on!

Overnight Summary:

Pool 1: Zebre are out of contention as they are fourth at best. Cheetahs can hold on to third but they will be be worst third team and thus away in the last 16. Pau will be the worst second-placed team and so we could go there. If Dragons get an unlikely try bonus at home to Sharks, Pau would drop to third, and would still be a possibility. A win for Dragons without a bonus would put them third and also in the frame.

Pool 2: Benetton can’t be caught at the top, so don’t book the Hotel Continental for the full week. Montpellier are second, but Lions will catch them with a bonus point win over Ospreys with a 13 point margin. The bookies have them at -19 and that seems fair to me. So I am sticking with Montpellier as the likely best third-placed team and thus Connacht’s likely opponents. So a jaunt along the Riviera is on the cards.

Pool 3: Clermont are the best second placed team so we can’t go there. Edinburgh are the second of the third-placed teams so we would go there if Bayonne don’t beat Exeter and Sale get nothing at home to La Rochelle. However if Dragons beat Sale, Edinburgh would be pushed out of the home seedings altogether.

But all this is irrelevant as Lyon are going to stuff Saracens, right?


Early jeopardy in Europe

The new European season is finally here, and while the jury is out on the new format, I think we can all agree that it is much better than the previous three seasons, though I feel nostalgia for the pre-pandemic format may define the season’s discourse.
One feature of Connacht’s fixture list is that the jeopardy is very much front-loaded: the very first night of the tournament will really define how the competition goes. While victory doesn’t guarantee future success, nor does defeat equate to failure, the shape of our engagement with the remainder of the Champions Cup will hinge on this mouthwatering opener.

With the final home game against Bristol deemed eminently winnable, a win in Round One would inspire confidence of progression and even thoughts of a home tie on the round of sixteen, whereas defeat would leave us staring down the barrel of a winless December and potentially duking it out for the consolation Challenge Cup spot on the last day.

The bookies have every home team bar La Rochelle as favourites this weekend, and this trend may well continue. If everyone keeps winning their home games, then anyone who has lost one may find themselves in a spot of bother. Even though you can somewhat bizarrely progress with only one win from four, it will be an uphill fight.

And so, as to who to root for in the other pool games, it really is too early to say, but probably best to default to home wins if Connacht win, as we could potentially top the pool by just sneaking one away win if most of the other results go with home advantage. On the other hand if we lose, a rare home defeat for Bulls might help our cause in what will then be a battle for fourth place.


Back in the Champions Cup

The revised Champions Cup format has been confirmed much as expected, with a few slightly bizarre quirks. The rather unexpected decision to almost completely abandon seeding, with only trophy winners being kept apart, suggests that there may have been some disagreements between the leagues, or between clubs in the same league, over the seeding rules. The fact that the Top 14 seedings take into account play-off performance and the URC only partly do, might have led to the decision to forget about the whole thing and fire almost all the balls into the same bowl.
The other odd rule is that teams from the same URC shield can’t be drawn together, in other words the four provinces will each be in a separate pool. In previous seasons this might have made sense, but since they don’t play each other anyway, it seems unnecessary. It might have actually been nice to be in the same pool as another Irish team as it would have meant that the opponents we meet away would also be visiting the country at some point and there might have been an opportunity to go see them in action in Thomond Park or Lansdowne Road and have a beverage or two with new friends from on tour.
Also, it gives Connacht (along with Leinster and Ulster) a bit of a disadvantage over the other URC teams. One of those four will be drawn with Munster (who they of course won’t play) and thus avoid Saracens, Toulouse and La Rochelle, whereas we will have to play one of those three.
The upshot of Romain Ntamack’s last minute heroics are that at least we can’t be drawn with Toulouse AND La Rochelle/Saracens, though our odds of avoiding Toulouse altogether have slipped.
For the record, the probabilities of being drawn with each team on Wednesday are as follows:

Saracens, Toulouse, La Rochelle: 1/3 (33%)
Racing, Stade Francais, Bordeaux, Lyon, Toulon, Bayonne: 2/9 (22%)
Sale, Leicester, Northampton, Exeter, Quins, Bath, Bristol: 4/21 (19%)
Stormers, Bulls, Glasgow, Cardiff: 1/4 (25%)

So not a lot in it really.
One annoying aspect is that we won’t get the crucial detail of which teams we have at home at the time of the draw. This will ostensibly be determined by an “algorithm”, though I think many people would deem it unlikely that EPCR could write a coherent shopping list, let alone an algorithm.
In terms of who we would like to get and avoid, there are many moving parts. Drawing Cardiff for example is a bit of a double-edged sword. Assuming they perform as poorly as their budget cuts suggest (and they may not), they would prop up the table and potentially allow Connacht to secure the Challenge Cup spot without even picking up a point. However they would also gift points to all of our opponents (but not us) meaning that we would need at least two wins to get into the top 4. So they are best avoided. The best URC team would probably be Bulls, who will take points off our opponents in Pretoria, but often struggle in Europe, so could potentially be caught.
Overall the best chance of a higher finish would probably be to play Saracens away (and more or less throw our hat at that one) and get Bristol or Bath at home while drawing two of the more beatable French teams. Stade Francais have had a tough time in the Sportsground before and Lyon and Bayonne do not have good European form.
From a travel perspective there are plenty of places we haven’t been competitively yet. Toulon, Lyon, Bristol and Bath would all be nice trips, plus we have only played Racing behind closed doors and the pandemic ensured most of us didn’t make it to Welford Road the last time either, so there are good chances for some new adventures.

But that is all in the hands of The Algorithm.


Down to the wire

So the play-off place is secured with a week to spare and not many would have predicted that at the start of the Six Nations, but the seemingly interminable quest for Champions Cup qualification continues. It has gone from almost impossible to quite likely and then back into the melting pot.
Munster’s orgy of unpredictability looks on course to deliver exactly the opposite set of results we politely asked of them so Connacht may have to go ahead and do it for themselves, which has, at least in URC terms, been actually working out pretty well of late.
As it stands, if we still need reminding, Connacht need fifth place to completely guarantee qualification, sixth to make it practically a done deal, seventh to have a better than fifty/fifty shot and eight to need a miracle (like that one in 2016).
A win in Scotstoun guarantees us sixth regardless of what happens before. Connacht would be ahead of Sharks on points no matter what they do and the best Bulls can do is get four points ahead before we kick off, so we would have them on games won.
To get fifth we would need Munster to get nothing, or for Connacht to get a try bonus if Munster get a single point, but take a deep breath before you start shouting for Sharks on that basis. A Sharks win opens up the possibility of eighth place, so a Munster win or a draw is far preferable.
The only other game that affects us directly is Bulls v Leinster. Another win for the Leinster Academy is ideal here. Bulls are even welcome to a losing bonus point (but not two).

Glasgow look fairly locked in in fourth, with only an unlikely second defeat for the Stormers (without even a single bonus point this time) giving them a shout at third, so we may face a less than full strength team, but who knows?
Even though there are numerous possible outcomes, the results we want are fairly simple. If you’re tuning in to TG4’s Saturday triple-header, just shout for the three away teams (the neighbours and ourselves). If one of the other two win, we’re at least seventh. The only conflict arises if Leinster win the first one. In that case a Munster win would have us in sixth and our game would be a dead rubber. A defeat would give us a shot at fifth or a potential precarious seventh. So which you prefer depends on how much of a risk-taker you are. If they both lose, Connacht need to win or we could be off to the Challenge Cup by way of Ballsbridge. Of course if we do win, you might retrospectively regret egging the Southerners on, thus denying us fifth, but a bird in the hand, etc.

The below flowchart gets the basic drift, though it ignores some bonus point and draw scenarios, like if Sharks get 4 points and we get 1, we probably get ahead of them on points difference …

URC Last Day Flowchart

Ulster’s result on Friday might (along with Stormers v Benetton) affect who we play in the quarter-final, but at that point we’ll have no idea what position we’ll be in, so there’s no particular result that favours us there.

But Saturday promises to be a nervy day …


Big win needed on Saturday

With Connacht now out of the Challenge Cup, that route to Champions Cup qualification is now closed, though our interest in the competition is not yet over, with either Benetton or Scarlets still in a position to qualify, thus reducing the number of available places.
With Sharks making their exit from the Champions Cup, that competition cannot now be won by a team below Connacht in the URC, so as it stands, fifth place would guarantee qualification. Our current sixth place would still see us Challenge Cup bound if either Benetton or Scarlets win the Challenge Cup AND a team below Connacht on the table make a late surge and come through the play-offs to claim the title. If neither of those things occur, seventh will do, so we could be reasonably confident with sixth.
Sixth place would also have us avoid the English and French finalists if EPCR stick to the same format for next season, which they have all but confirmed they will with the announcement of an identical fixture calendar, so potentially something like Leicester or London Irish and Lyon or Stade Francais as opposed to yet another trip to Toulouse (though I’d still take your hand off for it if it was offered right now).

So to hold on to sixth, what do we need? First up a win against Cardiff. A bonus point would help a lot but the win is crucial. Without it the Champions Cup is out the window and we could risk dropping out of the play-offs altogether if Cardiff back up their win with a victory over Ospreys in the Principality the following week.
It is worth at this point recapping on the rules. If two teams are level on league points, the first thing to separate them will be games won, followed by points difference and then tries scored. Head-to-head doesn’t come into it, that’s only for EPCR competitions. This is slightly good news for Connacht as if they finish level with Bulls or Munster, Connacht will almost certainly have an extra win and so the considerable points difference deficit won’t be a factor. If we finish level with Sharks (or Benetton if it comes to that), we will have the same number of wins but as it stands a superior points difference, so we may still come out on top, though with Sharks only seventeen points back and with Benetton at home, they may make up some ground, meaning a couple of extra points on Saturday wouldn’t go astray.
So any kind of win would keep us ahead of Sharks and Bulls, even if the latter annihilate Zebre. We would also pass Munster into fifth place if they don’t get anything in Cape Town. However this wouldn’t leave us much room to manoeuvre the following week. In the eminently reasonable scenario where Connacht take a bit of a beating in Scotstoun, Bulls would only need a losing bonus at home to Leinster, and even though Sharks and Munster can’t both win on the last day, a home win with a LBP for Munster would see them both sneak past.
A try bonus would be a much more comfortable position. Bulls would need two points to catch us, in addition to their likely five against Zebre, while Munster would need two points from their two games in South Africa, and Sharks would need two wins. The latter two results seem unlikely both to occur. Munster would need to beat Stormers (or draw) and lose to Sharks, or get two bonus between the two games.
So all in all a try bonus would be really helpful, though not completely essential.
Of course the easiest way to qualify is just win the league.

Useful Results:

Fri 17:30 Sharks v Benetton Stormers should take care of the Italians the following week, so Sharks dropping points would be great, but at the least no try bonus and a low margin for Sharks would be helpful. A draw with no bonus points for anyone would be the Holy Grail.
Fri 19:35 Glasgow v Scarlets – In theory we can catch Glasgow but it ain’t gonna happen, so best they secure their home QF and possibly have nothing to play for when we rock up to Scotstoun.

Sat 12:00 Bulls v Zebre We (and the they) can always dream
Sat 15:00 Lions v Leinster In case of disaster in the Sportsground, best for Lions not to make progress – also Leinster’s prospect of an unbeaten season might motivate them against Bulls
Sat 17:15 Stormers v Munster – Preferably zilch for Munster here
Sat 19:35 Connacht v Cardiff – The big one
Sat 19:35 Edinburgh v Ospreys – doesn’t matter much but Ospreys can still in theory catch Connacht, Edinburgh can’t


Time to move up the table …

With all the Grand Slam silliness out of the way, we now have to refocus on how to climb another few places up the URC table, secure some end of season knockout rugby and hopefully welcome Santi Cordero to the Sportsground with some Champions Cup fare next season.
We can now be cautiously optimistic about a playoff spot, but home wins are essential, starting this weekend. Edinburgh won’t overhaul us if they win, but next week’s Challenge Cup opponents are waiting to pounce if they take care of their fellow Lions before we kick off.
In terms of grabbing a Champions Cup spot, Bulls now look marginally easier to catch than Sharks, with Ulster and Leinster still to play and only a four point lead on the table, but a win for Scarlets over Sharks will be very welcome if we get the business done against Edinburgh.
Of course, Connacht might need to get ahead of both of them to protect against the eventuality of a team below us winning the Challenge Cup and leapfrogging us for the last spot, but that might be a big ask. Scarlets are the most likely URC team to pull off that feat, with home games all the way to Dublin, so that is another reason to hope they beat Sharks and maybe sneak in as the best Welsh team.
A Zebre win over Cardiff would be a good start and at the time of going to press, is looking less ridiculous than twenty minutes ago, though the odds favour another addition to the Parmesan LBP collection.

But other than our own game, the key game is probably in Ravenhill, where the bookies have Ulster favourites to overcome the Bulls, which might leave the European door open. But first to take care of the Gunners. They have some internationals back, while we are still waiting for ours, so it might not be easy. Memories of the trip there twelve months ago are still traumatic …

Favoured results:
Zebre v Cardiff
Leinster v Stormers
Benetton v Lions
Ospreys v Dragons
Connacht v Edinburgh
Scarlets v Sharks
Munster v Glasgow
Ulster v Bulls


Mixed Fortunes

Another try-fest at the Sportsground was most welcome and congrats to Jack on taking over the record, but in other venues the results were a bit of a mixed bag.

Edinburgh, Benetton and Zebre all had half-time leads that would have done our European ambitions no harm, but all let them slip. Munster and Sharks are edging towards safety.

Were Connacht to manage to win all the remaining games, we could still catch Munster if they lost their last two on the road in South Africa. And even though we only need one more win than Sharks, their games in hand mean they would need to lose at least three even if we keep winning. Ideally they lose two of the next six, as in their end of season clash with Munster, at least they can’t both win …

A defeat at home to Stormers this weekend would be a good start.

Of course all of this pre-supposes that the qualification system remains the same as last time out, which doesn’t seem to have been officially confirmed anywhere, but it seems reasonably safe to assume.

Munster Rugby1337
Benetton Rugby1334
Cell C Sharks1133
Edinburgh Rugby1331
Connacht Rugby1330
Emirates Lions1224
The European Qualification Mini-Table – top two progress …

The flipside is that in terms of just getting into the URC play-offs, the three teams immediately ahead of us lost, and we may even be in a position to move into eighth spot after the next full round of games in three weeks if it goes to plan.

The Ospreys win keeps them breathing down our necks, while Zebre’s performance shows they can’t be written off at home. Scarlets, despite their big win, probably haven’t got enough season left.


Dangerous times in the URC

After the bizarre conclusion to the European Pool stage, where, having initially seeming not to have put teams away by sufficient margins to get a favourable draw in this oddball format, Connacht were successively handed four gifts from their opponents, leaving them a gilt-edged opportunity for a triptych of lucrative home games followed by a day out in Dublin, which they promptly blew, it is that time of year when we refocus on the URC and try to figure what exactly it is that Connacht need to do to get into the play-offs, and indeed the Champions Cup.
The Champions Cup qualification is of course complicated by the requirement to have a team from each “Shield”, which means we probably need to get to seventh as opposed to eighth to qualify, though of course eighth is still good enough for another day out in the capital, if not exactly the one we seek.

To simplify matters, let’s get rid of the top five teams, who are probably already in (I may be being generous to Glasgow but they have a game in hand), the bottom two, who have no hope, and Cardiff, who should get the guaranteed Welsh spot. That leaves us with the below, and if you have been doing your subtraction, that means there are two teams from this table that will progress.
On the face of it, this looks like bad news as the table still contains Munster and Sharks.

6Benetton Rugby12705-375033
7Munster Rugby12606514432
8Cell C Sharks10604235029
10Connacht Rugby12507-463225
11Edinburgh Rugby11407484525
12Emirates Lions11506-743124

So to get through, Connacht need to stay ahead of who they’re ahead of, overhaul Treviso, and try to sneak past one of Munster or Sharks.
Edinburgh still have to play Leinster and Ulster, plus we can take a few points off them ourselves, so they shouldn’t be a problem as long as we keep up our end of the deal (which as always of course is the tricky part). Likewise Lions, who we have a chance to impact directly this weekend and who also travel to Bulls and host Leinster. Ospreys have a nice run in with Benetton, Dragons and Cardiff all at home after the trip to Parma, so they will be chomping at the heels at best, and will play leapfrog if our lot slip up in any of the forthcoming quintet of very winnable but eminently loseable fixtures. Scarlets have probably run out of road but can’t be quite written off yet after a bonus point win over Bulls.
Benetton have tough run in with four away games including finishing up in South Africa, so they should drop down from their perch atop the “table”.
Which leaves the Big Two. While we’ve been focused on trying to catch a previously misfiring Munster, at this point it might well be that Sharks are more vulnerable, despite the two games in hand. They have to play Stormers home and away, plus travel to Lions and Scarlets, after the imminent visit to the Murrayfield Car Park, and their last game of the season is a rerun of their Champions Cup Last Sixteen tie with Munster, which may also decide next season’s European fate (if Connacht do their job right). Munster themselves have a few losable games, not least the trip South, which also includes Stormers, but we may even need favours from them at home to keep Scarlets and Ospreys at bay.
So the best we can do is hope both of them keep dropping points to keep the door ajar, starting now, where we will permit both Benetton and Edinburgh to pick up some points just this once in order to keep the bigger fish within striking distance.

In terms of getting in the top eight, and getting the rosary beads out for the bus to Dublin, we could of course afford to finish behind both Sharks and Munster, as long as we get ahead of Cardiff, who we have a chance to overhaul this weekend, and who have yet to come visit us.
So home wins are the order of the day this weekend. If all six come in, we have a shout!

But any slip up at our own end and it could all look very ominous very fast …