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

Saturday
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.

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

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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?

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Just ignore the chaos and score tries

Round 1 really couldn’t have gone much better with the completion of the Pinky Slam. All desired results went the right way. Nit-pickers might say we could have done without Castres’ late bonus-point securing try but let’s not be greedy.
Before all hell broke loose later in the week, we were looking good for all the other games in Round 2 to go our way too. A fivefold accumulator on Castres, Wasps, Stade Francais, Scarlets and Cardiff all losing was coming in at odds-on. The only fly in the ointment was that Connacht themselves were 8-1 to pull off the win at Welford.
With the postponement of a raft of games and three 28-0 There-Is-No-Scope-For-Postponement-And-This-Is-Definitely-Not-A-Sanction results confusingly left to stand, the landscape is a bit different now, but remember that last season when it all went pear-shaped, home advantage was given to teams that won their games on the field of play, so the prospect of beating Leicester away is even more inviting, and with a few players back for us and their captain Christmas shopping in another team’s club shop, that may also have gotten slightly less remote.
Of the remaining fixtures, wins for Munster and Harlequins would be preferable, but seem fairly inevitable anyway. The game of the weekend is probably, quite unexpectedly, at lunchtime Sunday, so enjoy the limelight, play what’s in front of you, and let the bizarre inner workings of the EPCR play out in Neuchatel or Lausanne or wherever their current covenstead is located.
Or course this may all have changed by the time you read this …

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Round 1: Who else do we want to win?

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)

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Where can we go in England and France (if anywhere)?

Fresh on the heels of Connacht’s season coming to an end, everyone else (bar Benetton) had theirs prematurely truncated as well, with a selection of dead rubbers now on offer for the weekend. Only the Sharks can upset the table order by thrashing the Bulls at home.

With only academic interest in the Rainbow Cup for Connacht fans, attention turns to England and France, where our potential opponents for next season’s Champions Cup are being decided.

EPCR have yet to announce the format, but they have confirmed that 24 teams will participate and the assumption seems to be that the ostensibly temporary format adopted for this season will persist. If all the same rules stay in place, Connacht, as a Tier 2 side, i.e. one that finished third or fourth, will play one of the Tier 3 sides from each of England and France.

For the Premiership, that translates to the team in fifth, certain to be Northampton, and sixth, which in theory could be Bath, but will almost certainly be the winner of the final day clash between Wasps and Leicester. So no-one Connacht haven’t played recently, but there’s a chance that we might get to witness a trip to Welford Road in person. The bookies have Wasps as 3 point favourites so that one might be worth a watch at 3pm on Saturday.

Across La Manche, after last weekends end-of-regular-season drama that saw Toulon condemned to the Challenge Cup, the Barrages provide the weekend drama, with Connacht due to face one or other of the losing sides. For a while it looked like a trip to Castres could be a possibility after their comeback bonus-point win against Toulon, but three second half penalties from Stade Francais in the Basque Country saw Castres drop to seventh, putting them in the path of either Leinster or Munster.

As it stands the Barrages will see Racing at home to Stade in the Friday night derby, while Clermont, who beat La Rochelle while allowing them to hold on to the losing bonus they needed for second place, make the trip to Bordeaux the following night. Both games are live on Freesports, as Premier Sports have recently acquired the UK and Ireland rights to the Top 14 after a long absence from our screens.

Racing are firm favourites over their rivals, and the Stade Jean Bouin would certainly be my preferred destination if we are Paris bound, despite our near heroics in La Defense on All-Ireland Sunday last December.

On Saturday, Bordeaux are five point favourites to prevail at home to Clermont. While the intrepid adventurers amongst us will fancy the trip to the Auvergne, our proven ability to win in the faded splendour of the Stade Chaban-Delmas might have some of us shouting for the Yellow Army. Neither will be easy opponents though, so for a chance to progress, we’ll probably be hoping for the Parisian ball to come out of the hat when the time comes.

Of course, this all comes with the caveat that the competition might follow a new format, but assuming what I have assumed, a brief summary of our potential opponents is:

Northampton or the winner of Wasps v Leicester

and

One of the losers of Racing v Stade Francais or Bordeaux v Clermont

Enjoy the drama …

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Ah, who wants to go to Welford Road anyway?

After an only mildly mind-numbing Challenge Cup draw (we don’t really need a highlights reel to get us geed up EPCR, you’re in an empty hotel, just pick a ball), Connacht end up away to Leicester, with a home quarter-final against Ospreys or Newcastle for the winner.
After trip after fruitless trip to Kingsholm, two visits to the AJ Bell in the same season and many fans in danger of being awarded the Freedom of Toulouse for services to bar sales, we finally get to go somewhere new, and iconic. Except we can’t.
Of course, the Tigers faithful most likely won’t be about either and Connacht have a great record in empty away grounds, so the home QF isn’t inconceivable.
Leicester are still in the hunt for a Premiership semi-final and have a key game against the team above them and potential quarter-final opponents Falcons the previous week, so it remains to be seen what kind of team they decide to field. The potential TV coverage is also completely up in the air. With eight Champions Cup knockout games coupled with Harlequins v Ulster and Montpellier hosting Glasgow, Connacht’s game mightn’t make the cut, so we could be hoping for an EPCR website live stream if anything. Fingers crossed.

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Over? It’s only just begun …

It seems that this season’s Pro 14 challenge has finally come to an end. Though of course we can’t rule out a last minute reversion to a full league format if the Rainbow Cup doesn’t happen, that would be highly unlikely at this stage. If you ignore the elephant sized asterisk in the room, it’s Connacht’s second best season ever (assuming they hold off Scarlets for second). In any case, we have three new competitions to look forward to.
Qualification for next season’s Champions Cup is assured. At worst Connacht will be ranked fifth overall, meaning they avoid being in Pot 4 in the draw and can potentially be drawn with one of the Welsh teams or a mid-table English or French club. If they hold off Scarlets, which seems likely, they have a one in three chance of getting into Pot 2 in the draw and avoiding some of the higher ranked sides.
The fate of the aforementioned Rainbow Cup is still to be decided, the current assumption being that it will take place entirely in Europe, with the South African sides hanging around to play the Lions in a home “tour”. If the South African sides don’t travel at all however, the whole thing will seem like a rather anticlimactic mini-rerun of the league we’re just wrapping up.
But before all that, Connacht are an unlikely qualifier for this season’s Challenge Cup, despite only actually picking up a single point in the two European games we got to play.
There are sixteen names in the hat. The only rules are that teams from the same league can’t be drawn together and that teams that played and won both of their games (London Irish, Leicester and Ospreys) have to have a home game, otherwise it’s decided by lot. As it happens, there are eight Pro 14 teams, therefore presumably they will put them all in one pot and the six English and two French in the other, with another draw for home advantage where necessary (and just draw again if Ospreys get Irish or Leicester), but EPCR will no doubt find a way to make it way more complicated. In any case, the teams Connacht can get (all equally probable) are:

London Irish
Leicester
Newcastle
Northampton
Bath
Harlequins
Montpellier
Agen

Agen are obviously the easiest option, having endured a winless season and only qualifying by virtue of the bonus point win they got awarded for a walkover against Benetton, while Pau, who actually won a game, miss out. Irish and Leicester are tough prospects at least on paper as the game would be guaranteed to be away, but with Connacht’s pandemic away form, that might not matter as much as usual. Montpellier are the other side that stands out, but they’re also having a poor run of form and might be more focused on climbing up from the lower reaches of the Top 14 table.
All in all it seems an eminently winnable competition and, even more so than in a normal season, it might all come down to who cares most.
The draw is live on Tuesday at high noon on https://www.epcrugby.com/

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It’s raining bonus points

Having seen how the table looks after a few free bonus-point wins were handed out, I’ve officially changed my position on Racing 92. Even with fifteen points under their belt coming to the Sportsground, they wouldn’t be comfortable with Toulouse and Lyon almost certainly ahead of them and probably a few others, so any advantage to them winning is minimal. Better if Harlequins win and set up the potential last day showdown, where Connacht overhaul them with a glorious victory in front of a full house of eighty fans. Or even better if they lose twice and give up! Bookies are giving Quins a decent chance on Sunday so I’ll shout for them:

Updated winners (in bold):

Gloucester v Ulster

Clermont v Munster

Harlequins v Racing 92

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Round 2 Armchair Guide

Round One all went to plan with the obvious exception, but the raft of match cancellations and the uncertainty of how they will be decided adds an extra level of mystery to what is going on in Round 2 (get well soon to all the players and staff affected).

With one loss under our belt, but with a welcome bonus point, the ideal scenario is to have as few teams as possible on three wins, thus making it likely that Connacht would qualify if they win their remaining games and even open up the possibility that on a very miraculous day, they could pox into the quarter-finals with only two wins.

Racing look likely candidates for a couple of wins against Quins, and that may not be a bad thing, as it could mean that they are safely qualified before the trip to the Sportsground, and with two-legged quarter-finals, the incentive to finish higher up the table is reduced and so consequently might be their motivation. Try bonus points would help on that front. We got them off to a good start by skillfully conceding four tries in Paris.

So that’s one team on three wins at least. After that, Clermont look odds on to repeat their win over Bristol on the last weekend and Munster may well do the same away to Quins (the latter being severely demotivated by a double dose of Racing and thinking ahead to the derby against Wasps the following week), thus a divvying up up the spoils in the two Munster v Clermont games would be the worst outcome as it would leave them both on three wins, so it is better all round if the same team wins both games. Clermont seem more likely to do the double you would think. On the other hand, Thomond, while not the fortress of old, is still a God-awful place to go if it’s points you’re after. I’m plumping for Munster on the grounds that if they can win in the Michelin, they can finish the job in Limerick. If they lose, I’ll just switch jerseys next round.

The exact same scenario would have applied to the Exeter/Toulouse fixtures. Both look likely winners in Round 4 so we want both results to go the same way, so I would have preferred an Exeter away win. Word around the campfire though is that Toulouse will be awarded the game, since it was Exeter who caused the cancellation. In that case just shout for Toulouse in Round 3.

The situation with Glasgow v Lyon is less clear cut. That could be called a draw since it’s neither team’s doing. I’d have liked a Glasgow win there. They don’t look like QF contenders and any points Lyon drop is a good thing looking at their fixture list.

Gloucester and Ulster are probably best sharing the points, just in case one of them pulls an upset in Round 4, so shout for the home team in each case.

With those results, Toulouse and Munster (or Clermont) would end up with four wins, Racing with three, leaving the outside chance of someone pipping Lyon to fourth spot. Looking at Bordeaux’s fixture list, they could very well end up top of the heap on the other side, which wouldn’t be a bad outcome to the pool stage adventures.

In all cases, the less bonus points, the better, except for Racing, who we’d like to get comfortable, and of course Connacht, for whom a try bonus against Bristol would really really help, but a win is of course essential …

Desired results (in bold):

Gloucester v Ulster

Clermont v Munster

Harlequins v Racing 92 (TBP)

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Who to shout for in Round 1

The new format makes it even harder to know who to shout for in the other games.

Since the teams are now split into two pools with four qualifiers from each, with no best runners-up, the results in the other Pool are of supreme indifference to us (except from the point of view of potential Quarter Final opponents), so Connacht fans can just sit back and enjoy those.

As for Connacht’s pool, it’s a bit early to say in most cases. As mentioned before, sharing the points about is key to having a chance of coming through the pack. Ideally you want three teams to win all around them while the points in the other games are shared, giving a shot at fourth spot and perhaps a meeting with Leinster. My previous suggestion that Glasgow or Gloucester could be dark horses given their pairing with Lyon now looks very wide of the mark given their starts to their respective domestic seasons.

One result that would definitely help would be for Clermont to win away to Bristol. If Connacht could then beat Bristol the following weekend (a basic requirement for us to have any chance), Pat Lam’s side might consider themselves effectively out of contention, which could only help our prospects in Ashton Gate.

After that, it’s probably best if Exeter and Toulouse keep winning, as they’ll probably be in the top 3 and if the rest go with the home team, to keep the points spread thinner.

So the preferred winners (in bold) are (without much conviction):

Ulster v Toulouse

Bristol Bears v ASM Clermont Auvergne

Lyon v Gloucester

Exeter Chiefs v Glasgow Warriors

Munster v Harlequins