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.
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