The Challenge Cup Draw – How it might work

The regulations for the Challenge Cup draw are, as predicted, unnecessarily complicated but might work out reasonably well for Connacht.
There is some quite vague language employed in the rules, which allows a little reading between the lines, so below is what we know, and also what we can reasonably guess.

Connacht are being kept apart from the two English teams so we know we won’t be in the same pool as Newcastle or Gloucester.
We will definitely have two French teams in our pool.
We will have one Welsh team plus either a second Welsh or Zebre/Edinburgh.
And finally one of the invitational teams (Cheetahs/Black Lion)

By a process of elimination, we cannot get Lions. This is because there is a maximum of three URC teams in each pool and we are already guaranteed to have two from Wales/Scotland/Italy. This rules out a second trip to South Africa as Cheetahs are based in Amsterdam.

As to which of the five other teams we don’t play, that is a matter for assumption and speculation.
The only thing it says is “A limited number of same-league fixtures will be unavoidable”, which is stating the obvious as two of the pools will have three URC teams. So technically it is not against the rules for the two French teams in a pool to play each other,but we can assume that won’t happen since it is avoidable and, after all, the whole raison-d’etre of this convoluted scheme is that the French teams did not want to play each other.
So we will play both the French teams in our pool. We are not however guaranteed one home and one away as it is not possible to arrange this for everyone. For example last season in Pool 3, Lions went to France twice and Benetton didn’t go at all.
One curious line in the rules, when talking about Edinburgh and Zebre says “For the purposes of the draw, they will be grouped with the Welsh clubs”. It’s not clear what this means exactly but a good guess is that it means that those teams will not play each other. In other words those six teams will be considered the URC teams for the purposes of scheduling, while Connacht and Lions are considered part of the “Everybody Else” contingent. It makes a more convenient draw and means they can follow the same rules as the Champions Cup, with teams from the same “league” not playing each other.
If that is true, and it seems the most likely scenario, then we would play two other URC teams and would not play the invitational sides even if we draw them. From the point of view of the Connacht away traveller, eager to see the world, that means that unfortunately Amsterdam and Tbilisi are off the itinerary. Indeed the sum total of our European travel could be two trips to Wales!
Based on an brief analysis of last season’s fixtures (and I haven’t checked them all), where two URC teams play each other, the fixture was the reverse of the URC fixture. This could just be coincidence but it would make sense to avoid repeat fixtures where possible. So that would make it likely we would be at home for Ospreys, Scarlets or Zebre and away for Cardiff, Dragons or Edinburgh. In that case I would like to avoid Edinburgh as our record there is poor and I always end up in the Rat Pack until 4am.

So based on all of these assumptions we will play:
Two of Pau, Perpignan, Lyon, Bayonne, Montpellier, Vannes and
Two of Edinburgh, Zebre, Ospreys, Scarlets, Cardiff, Dragons (but not both Edinburgh and Zebre).

There is a 50% chance we will play a French team and a URC team at home, a 25% chance we will play two French at home and a 25% chance we will play two URC at home. I’ll take Bayonne and Zebre at home with Vannes and Dragons away. I’d like two trips to France but they’re very close together. Not going at all would be disappointing.
Of course my wild speculation could be inaccurate and we might be off to Amsterdam.

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