The format for next season’s Challenge Cup has yet to be confirmed, but with Cheetahs announced as an invitational team, we can assume they are being added in order to bring the numbers up to an even twenty.
Based on the Champions Cup format and the Challenge Cup format from the season before this one (this season was an anomaly, with fifteen teams involved), we can also assume two tiers of ten teams, with each team playing two teams from the other tier, neither of which can be from the same league.
As the third-ranked URC team, Connacht will be safely in the higher tier and will thus avoid the top three teams in both England and France, at least in the pool stage.
So the potential opponents are the bottom two teams from England, the twelfth-placed team from France along with the promoted team and the winner of the promotion/relegation play-off, and the aforementioned Cheetahs.
This is based on a few assumptions, but seems fairly likely.
With that in mind, here are the most relevant matches from the last round of action in England and France, if you are wondering what to keep an eye on.
Worcester v Bath: 15:00 Saturday. Ordinarily, this would be a relegation dogfight, but with the Premiership having abandoned relegation, this is all about pride (and Challenge Cup seedings). With Newcastle likely to lose away to title-chasing Northampton, the winner should finish 11th and end up in the higher tier. Worcester are very slight favourites, and since it’s a long time since we got a trip to the Rec, most of us might be hoping for a home win.
The Pro D2 Final: Bayonne v Mont-de-Marsan, 16:45 Sunday in Montpellier. The winner will be in the pot to play Connacht, the loser will get a second chance via a play-off against the second-last team in the Top 14. Bookies have Bayonne as four point favourites. No official coverage in these parts but it’s live on Canal+ in France.
Perpignan v Bordeaux and Stade Francais v Brive: 20:05 Saturday. This is the battle to avoid the relegation play-off. Brive are in twelfth now but have a tough trip to Paris. Meanwhile Perpignan host Bordeaux, who will be keen to finish in the top 2 and avoid the barrages. Despite this, the Bordelais are only two point favourites, so a win could sneak Perpignan through and set up a potential trip to Connacht. Defeat would put Brive in the pot. Of course they could both make it through depending on how the play-off goes.
At the other end of affairs, there are a couple of teams that could still make the Champions Cup. Connacht won’t face them in the pools, but could run into them later on (then again, they could run into just about anyone later on if they continue with the practice of including Champions Cup teams in the Challenge Cup knock-outs).
Leicester v Wasps: A win for Wasps puts them in the Champions Cup, while London Irish are in the Challenge. Otherwise it’s the other way around.
Clermont v Montpellier and Racing v Toulon: Toulon hold the last Champions Cup slot at present (Lyon are already through), but if they lose in Paris and Clermont beat Montpellier at home, they join Connacht, with Clermont going through. The Toulon game is live on TV5
The picture should be a bit clearer by Monday and we might even get details on the competition format in the next week or two.