Challenge Cup line-up takes shape

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.


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

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