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.
|8||Cell C Sharks||10||6||0||4||23||5||0||29|
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 …