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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
Leicester
Newcastle
Northampton
Bath
Harlequins
Montpellier
Agen

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 https://www.epcrugby.com/

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Racing 92 and Bristol

Connacht’s Champions Cup luck hasn’t improved any since our “promotion” to Tier 3 in the draw.

First of all, Racing rather unhelpfully lost the Champions Cup final, thus failing to get bumped up to Tier 1 and in the process bump serial Euro-underachievers Lyon into our path, and then, in a draw process that had to be held in secret, lest the virus live-stream itself into our bubble, we landed with probably the tougher option in each of the two coin-tosses.

Bath would have been marginally preferable to their neighbours, and Toulon would certainly have provided more beatable opposition than the aforementioned Parisians, but we are where we are.

The new format being what it is, we should also consider who our opponents’ opponents are, since they will not face each other. Racing take on Harlequins, whereas Bristol play Clermont.

It seems a daunting task but the order of the fixtures could play a key role. If for example Bristol were to host Connacht in the last game, having lost both Clermont games and the away game in Galway, they could be picked off. Of course we’d have to deal with Racing in the Sportsground as well (I’m more or less writing off the trip to La Defense, but you’d never know).

Below are the fantasy results that get us to the quarter finals. I may be being very harsh on Harlequins, but they have a tough draw, so I figure they lose all their games. Essentially if they and Bristol get whitewashed, and everything else goes to the home team, Connacht squeak through …

TeamOpponentsWins
ExeterGlasgow
Toulouse
2
LyonGlasgow
Gloucester
2
UlsterToulouse
Gloucester
2
BristolClermont
Connacht
0
MunsterClermont
Harlequins
3
RacingConnacht
Harlequins
3
ClermontBristol
Munster
3
ConnachtRacing
Bristol
3
HarlequinsMunster
Racing
0
GlasgowLyon
Exeter
2
GloucesterLyon
Ulster
2
ToulouseExeter
Ulster
2

Glasgow or Gloucester could be the surprise package. In the scenario above, I gave Lyon two home wins, but if they repeat their typical European performances of late, one of them could easily pull off the coveted away win that get them into the top 4. In that scenario, Exeter’s trip to Scotstoun becomes crucial, with the winner putting themselves in a QF spot. Of course if Lyon were to suddenly start performing in Europe as they do domestically, they have the kind of draw that could see them through.

There are so many possible scenarios that the best approach might be to just enjoy the rugby and not even look at the table until after Round 3 in January.

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The new Champions Cup format: What’s really going on?

So yesterday, I forgot the details of Pro 14’s European qualification rules. As you may (almost certainly not) remember from previous seasons, qualification is based on your position within your conference, but once you’ve qualified, that no longer matters, and your seeding in the draw is based on your total points, regardless of which conference you’re in. The logic presumably is that consistency would lead to predictability, thence to boredom, and therein madness lies.

If like me, you feel silly for not knowing that eminently sensible arrangement, console yourself that Pro14 missed it themselves, and had to update their press release. This was all too late for Gerry Thornley, who didn’t get the news before his print deadline, so I don’t feel so bad.

The upshot of it all is that Connacht have now leapfrogged Glasgow, having had one point more than them after round 13, and are now the sixth-ranked team in the Pro14, and thus in Tier 3 for the draw. Cue wild celebration, a heroic victory, actually not quite.

You see the problem (as Gerry also alludes to) is that the Tier 1 teams that Connacht would have faced as a Tier 4 side, are less intimidating in European terms than the Tier 2 sides we now have to deal with. A choice of Lyon or Bordeaux has now become a toss-up between Toulon and Racing. The trade-off is that we avoid the English finalists, but the likely losing semi-finalists (Wasps/Bristol) will be no pushover.

So I’ll have a go at faking the draw again and see if our promotion has helped us (I’ll just stick in the number of wins as predicting bonus points is a bit silly):

TierTeamOpponentsWins
1LeinsterGloucester
Toulouse
4
1SaleDragons
Toulouse
3
1LyonDragons
Gloucester
1
2UlsterNorthampton
La Rochelle
2
2BristolConnacht
La Rochelle
2
2RacingNorthampton
Connacht
3
3 Connacht Bristol
Racing
2
3NorthamptonRacing
Ulster
1
3La RochelleUlster
Bristol
2
4DragonsSale
Lyon
1
4GloucesterLeinster
Lyon
2
4ToulouseLeinster
Sale
1


I gave us home wins over Racing and Bristol and I still could only get us into a five-way scrap for the last slice of pudding.

So this has definitely gotten harder.

There is one hope. If a French team win the Champions Cup, they automatically go into Tier 1, which would mean second-placed Lyon drop to Tier 2, which would then give Connacht a 50/50 shot at playing them home and away, which would be far preferable to Racing or Toulon.

So sorry Leinster, I’m afraid the unbeaten season will have to come a cropper at the final hurdle 🙂

If I’ve made any other errors, there’s a comment option (that I think works).