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.