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 …


Challenge Cup Draw Takes Place in Pinky’s Mind

Last night I ate a whole wedge of Emmental and washed it down with a half litre of Absinthe in the hope that I might get inside the minds of the EPCR intelligentsia as they, holed up in their Alpine redoubt, plot their latest dastardly scheme to confuse the bejaysus out of the European Rugby community.
I woke up in a cold sweat with an irrational fear of cuckoo clocks, unrealistic expectations of train punctuality, and the complete Challenge Cup pool draw fresh in my otherwise fuzzy brain.
Previous notions of a two-tier structure, were, I now realise, a product of excessive sobriety. The EPCR like a four tier system, and four tiers is what we’ll get, and here’s how they’ll do it.
First you just need to lump the Cheetahs in with the English teams to balance up the numbers. Then you create Tiers One and Four in the same way as the Champions Cup, with two teams from each league, the top two in Tier One and the bottom two in Tier Four. You are then left with eight teams, which go into Tiers Two and Three. These tiers have less teams but that doesn’t matter as Tier One teams only play Tier Four and Tier Two only play Tier Three. Tiers Two and Three will each have two URC teams but only one from England and France.

So it looks like this:

Tier 1: Glasgow, Scarlets, Wasps, Bristol, Toulon, Pau
Tier 2: Connacht, Lions, Worcester, Stade Francais
Tier 3: Benetton, Cardiff, Newcastle, Brive
Tier 4: Dragons, Zebre, Bath, Cheetahs, Bayonne, Perpignan/Mont-de-Marsan

The upshot of it all is that, while a draw will be required to split the teams into two Pools, which will determine which Tier One teams play which Tier Four teams, the Tier Two and Three games can only go one way. Since you can’t play a team from your own league, Connacht will have to play Brive and Newcastle. Lions will play the same two teams, while Worcester and Stade Francais will each play Benetton and Cardiff.
If that doesn’t make sense, then you’re too sober and rational.
On the one hand, part of me hopes this is wrong, as I would prefer to go to Bath and Bayonne. On the other hand, we’ve had good craic in Brive and Newcastle, and the last time we played them both, we won the league. So maybe it will all work out for the best.


Challenge Cup line-up takes shape

The format for next season’s Challenge Cup has yet to be confirmed, but with Cheetahs announced as an invitational team, we can assume they are being added in order to bring the numbers up to an even twenty.
Based on the Champions Cup format and the Challenge Cup format from the season before this one (this season was an anomaly, with fifteen teams involved), we can also assume two tiers of ten teams, with each team playing two teams from the other tier, neither of which can be from the same league.
As the third-ranked URC team, Connacht will be safely in the higher tier and will thus avoid the top three teams in both England and France, at least in the pool stage.
So the potential opponents are the bottom two teams from England, the twelfth-placed team from France along with the promoted team and the winner of the promotion/relegation play-off, and the aforementioned Cheetahs.
This is based on a few assumptions, but seems fairly likely.
With that in mind, here are the most relevant matches from the last round of action in England and France, if you are wondering what to keep an eye on.

Worcester v Bath: 15:00 Saturday. Ordinarily, this would be a relegation dogfight, but with the Premiership having abandoned relegation, this is all about pride (and Challenge Cup seedings). With Newcastle likely to lose away to title-chasing Northampton, the winner should finish 11th and end up in the higher tier. Worcester are very slight favourites, and since it’s a long time since we got a trip to the Rec, most of us might be hoping for a home win.

The Pro D2 Final: Bayonne v Mont-de-Marsan, 16:45 Sunday in Montpellier. The winner will be in the pot to play Connacht, the loser will get a second chance via a play-off against the second-last team in the Top 14. Bookies have Bayonne as four point favourites. No official coverage in these parts but it’s live on Canal+ in France.

Perpignan v Bordeaux and Stade Francais v Brive: 20:05 Saturday. This is the battle to avoid the relegation play-off. Brive are in twelfth now but have a tough trip to Paris. Meanwhile Perpignan host Bordeaux, who will be keen to finish in the top 2 and avoid the barrages. Despite this, the Bordelais are only two point favourites, so a win could sneak Perpignan through and set up a potential trip to Connacht. Defeat would put Brive in the pot. Of course they could both make it through depending on how the play-off goes.

At the other end of affairs, there are a couple of teams that could still make the Champions Cup. Connacht won’t face them in the pools, but could run into them later on (then again, they could run into just about anyone later on if they continue with the practice of including Champions Cup teams in the Challenge Cup knock-outs).

Leicester v Wasps: A win for Wasps puts them in the Champions Cup, while London Irish are in the Challenge. Otherwise it’s the other way around.

Clermont v Montpellier and Racing v Toulon: Toulon hold the last Champions Cup slot at present (Lyon are already through), but if they lose in Paris and Clermont beat Montpellier at home, they join Connacht, with Clermont going through. The Toulon game is live on TV5

The picture should be a bit clearer by Monday and we might even get details on the competition format in the next week or two.


Bring on Round Three

Many in the media have been getting very hot and bothered about the cancellation of games and awarding of seemingly arbitrary points and sounding various death knells over the tournament as a result. The frustration is understandable to a certain extent, but let’s be honest, the tournament format was always a bit daft, with the top-seeded teams given a massively disproportionate advantage, and at the end of the day, the pool stage was only ever going to be about weeding out a couple of the weaker teams in advance of the main knockout event.
So bring it on I say. You can’t beat a European rugby weekend, especially when, for the second time running, Connacht are involved in the tie of the round.
The most recent round of nil-nils is an awkward one to process when it comes to Connacht’s chances. From the point of view of challenging for the upper reaches of the table, it’s good news of sorts, with Toulouse and Bristol now denied the chance of a clean sweep of victories and thus potentially catchable, but if it all goes wrong and we want to pox our way through with what we’ve got, the extra points handed out to Scarlets and especially Wasps, could make life a bit tricky. Wasps were looking firmly in the rear-view mirror, with six points looking like a near impossible deficit to make up given they had trips to the Ernest Wallon and Thomond Park ahead of them, but now that they have picked up two free points, a win at home to Toulouse could draw them level with Connacht, though with the points difference advantage the way it is, they would need to pick up a bonus point somewhere to pull ahead.
So to the matter of what results would favour Connacht in the weekend’s other games, well you’re really asking two questions there. If Connacht beat Leicester and are thus in contention for a high placing, then of course we want the stronger teams to lose to make that more likely. On the other hand, if the Tigers win and we are potentially scrapping it out for the last spot or two, then some defeats at the basement end would provide some relief to the pressure on the trip to Paris.
It should be noted that, since the Round of Sixteen is now scheduled to go ahead on a home-and-away basis as planned and not cut to a single leg as potentially mooted, the importance of finishing in the top 4 has diminished since my last article. It’s really just a matter of the ordering of the fixtures and who you play. A top 2 finish, and thus an eminently winnable two-legger and a home quarter-final would of course be lovely. It might be just out of reach but we can dream.
The difficulty of all this is that three of the games that may decide our fate will be played before our one, so your choice of who to shout for in those ones may depend on the extent of your ambitions. The battle of wits has begun!

Are you the kind of man who would deliberately put the bonus point in his enemy’s goblet …

On Friday night Cardiff take on Harlequins. Since the artists formerly known as the Blues are six points adrift and still have to go to Toulouse, I decree it safe to egg them on. A few points off Quins wouldn’t hurt and even if Cardiff do get the couple of wins somehow then fair play to them, they’ve been through a lot and were good entertainment on their two outings on terrestrial TV. Castres v Munster is a bit different. While Munster losing a few points would give us a chance of catching them, Castres are a bit too close for comfort. A win would put them level with Connacht and the points difference could be chipped away if things start to go wrong. We really should be confident of staying ahead of them either way, but those of a nervous disposition might gently encourage the neighbours to snuff out the lingering threat.
On Saturday over a pre-match calamari in Murty Rabbitt’s, we might catch Toulouse’s trip to Coventry. Without the surprise no-show away draw, we could have comfortably shouted for Wasps, now it’s a little more nervy. They have a big points difference to make up so as long as they don’t somehow get a try bonus, we can let them overcome the nine point handicap the bookies are giving. If Munster have done the job the night before, it’s probably even safer for them to win. A draw would actually be ideal.
Once our game is over, the desired outcomes of the other games are more clear cut. If Connacht lose, we want Bristol to beat Stade, otherwise the Parisians could dump us out at home next week in a late show of enthusiasm for the new format. On the other hand if we’re sitting pretty on ten points, we can cheer on next week’s opponents in the post closing-time encounter, leaving us potentially a couple of points clear of both. It will most likely be all in vain though, nobody is really giving Stade a chance, so we might need to wait until next weekend for Scarlets to put it up to the Bears.
And finally to Sunday, when Scarlets make their belated tournament bow. If we win, it’s not really important, as neither of them will be a serious threat in that case, but if we are licking our wounds after a defeat, then a Scarlets win is probably better. I can’t see Bordeaux winning away to Leicester the following week, so a defeat would be the end of them, whereas if they win, they go ahead of Connacht but Scarlets could still catch us with a win at home to Bristol on the last weekend. A home win is more likely though and if that happens it is important that Scarlets don’t get a losing bonus point. In fact, even though it’s better Scarlets win, if they do lose, then the more they lose by the better.
And so that concludes the latest round of spectacular over-analysis.

In summary:
Cardiff v Harlequins 20:00 – Home win please.
Castres v Munster 20:00 – Munster for safety, Castres for glory

Wasps v Toulouse 13:00 – Ideally a draw. Or Wasps without a try bonus, especially if Munster have won. Toulouse if you’re a pessimist.
Bristol v Stade Francais 20:00 – Stade if Connacht have just won. Bristol if we’ve lost.

Bordeaux v Scarlets – If we beat Leicester, no matter. If not then either a Scarlets win or a heavy defeat. LBP bad.


Chaos Reigns

One couldn’t help having a bit of a chuckle when EPCR announced gravely that there were no free weekends to reschedule pandemic-affected games. It was like going back in time eighteen months. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Covid is that nothing can be set in stone any more and flexibility is key. So panic-cancelling games and awarding arbitrary scorelines as if the match had really taken place on a Tuesday afternoon and consisted of four penalty tries is bound to rub a few people up the wrong way.
A sensible approach would have been to delay any adjudication of results until after Round Three, allowing a better assessment of the situation. If there were only a small number of cancellations, and one team clearly caused each of them, by all means award the points then and give everyone a bit of certainty going into the final round, but if there are so many games called off as to make the pool stage a bit of a lottery, then reschedule to a contingency weekend instead.
Of course sense is not really in abundance when it comes to EPCR, which is not really a massive surprise considering every rule change has to be negotiated between representatives of three different leagues, all with different priorities, so we are, as the saying goes, where we are, although the precise location of where it is that we are has yet to be revealed.
The future format of the tournament depends a lot on how badly affected the remaining two rounds are. If they go ahead more or less unscathed, which seems optimistic, then we only need to find one spare weekend. Each of the leagues has at least one weekend free during the Six Nations, despite numerous media claims to the contrary, so it would be possible to postpone a round of league action on the last weekend of January and reschedule the games to there, but it’s probably more likely that the two-legged round of sixteen will be cut to one round (or indeed dropped altogether if further postponements are required). Personally I find the idea of two-legged rugby games a bit silly anyway.
All of that attaches extra importance to finishing in the top four places in the pool to secure a home tie in the round of sixteen or indeed direct access to a quarter-final, depending on how it all pans out. So can Connacht achieve that? Perhaps, but it will require some points and some favours. At this stage I am perhaps arrogantly assuming that a top eight finish is already highly likely. While it’s too early to count chickens, with six points in the bag after two games and so many winless teams (admittedly many with games in hand), Connacht are already odds-on to keep ahead of four teams and progress. The question is, can we stay ahead of eight?
To get a home tie (if indeed that transpires to be the rule), it pretty much goes without saying that we need to win the remaining two games, and that is achievable based on the first two rounds. But we also need no more than three teams to go undefeated. Currently there are five who haven’t lost a game, but Leicester’s fate is in Connacht’s own hands so that leaves four: Harlequins, Munster, Toulouse and Bristol. Connacht would need just one of those four to lose to have a chance of a top-four spot. After that it comes down to bonus points and points difference. Munster would be favourites to win both their games, but they made hard work of Castres in Thomond, so might not have it all their own way in France. Likewise Quins have to take a trip to Cardiff, who may be out to prove a point and, assuming their current Covid issues have passed by then, may have a full deck to deal from for the first time in a while. Both those games are scheduled for Friday night in Round Three, and may set the tone for Connacht’s weekend. Toulouse haven’t been tested properly yet, but already look set fair for a clean sweep, but Bristol have yet to lace up a boot and could easily slip-up in Paris or Llanelli. And of course, the elephant in the room is that any of these teams could end up forfeiting a game along the way, but we wouldn’t want to get through that way now, would we?
So a top-four finish is not beyond the realms of possibility. The big question is, can everyone get the players on the pitch to make it happen?