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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.

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Bring on Round Three

Many in the media have been getting very hot and bothered about the cancellation of games and awarding of seemingly arbitrary points and sounding various death knells over the tournament as a result. The frustration is understandable to a certain extent, but let’s be honest, the tournament format was always a bit daft, with the top-seeded teams given a massively disproportionate advantage, and at the end of the day, the pool stage was only ever going to be about weeding out a couple of the weaker teams in advance of the main knockout event.
So bring it on I say. You can’t beat a European rugby weekend, especially when, for the second time running, Connacht are involved in the tie of the round.
The most recent round of nil-nils is an awkward one to process when it comes to Connacht’s chances. From the point of view of challenging for the upper reaches of the table, it’s good news of sorts, with Toulouse and Bristol now denied the chance of a clean sweep of victories and thus potentially catchable, but if it all goes wrong and we want to pox our way through with what we’ve got, the extra points handed out to Scarlets and especially Wasps, could make life a bit tricky. Wasps were looking firmly in the rear-view mirror, with six points looking like a near impossible deficit to make up given they had trips to the Ernest Wallon and Thomond Park ahead of them, but now that they have picked up two free points, a win at home to Toulouse could draw them level with Connacht, though with the points difference advantage the way it is, they would need to pick up a bonus point somewhere to pull ahead.
So to the matter of what results would favour Connacht in the weekend’s other games, well you’re really asking two questions there. If Connacht beat Leicester and are thus in contention for a high placing, then of course we want the stronger teams to lose to make that more likely. On the other hand, if the Tigers win and we are potentially scrapping it out for the last spot or two, then some defeats at the basement end would provide some relief to the pressure on the trip to Paris.
It should be noted that, since the Round of Sixteen is now scheduled to go ahead on a home-and-away basis as planned and not cut to a single leg as potentially mooted, the importance of finishing in the top 4 has diminished since my last article. It’s really just a matter of the ordering of the fixtures and who you play. A top 2 finish, and thus an eminently winnable two-legger and a home quarter-final would of course be lovely. It might be just out of reach but we can dream.
The difficulty of all this is that three of the games that may decide our fate will be played before our one, so your choice of who to shout for in those ones may depend on the extent of your ambitions. The battle of wits has begun!

Are you the kind of man who would deliberately put the bonus point in his enemy’s goblet …

On Friday night Cardiff take on Harlequins. Since the artists formerly known as the Blues are six points adrift and still have to go to Toulouse, I decree it safe to egg them on. A few points off Quins wouldn’t hurt and even if Cardiff do get the couple of wins somehow then fair play to them, they’ve been through a lot and were good entertainment on their two outings on terrestrial TV. Castres v Munster is a bit different. While Munster losing a few points would give us a chance of catching them, Castres are a bit too close for comfort. A win would put them level with Connacht and the points difference could be chipped away if things start to go wrong. We really should be confident of staying ahead of them either way, but those of a nervous disposition might gently encourage the neighbours to snuff out the lingering threat.
On Saturday over a pre-match calamari in Murty Rabbitt’s, we might catch Toulouse’s trip to Coventry. Without the surprise no-show away draw, we could have comfortably shouted for Wasps, now it’s a little more nervy. They have a big points difference to make up so as long as they don’t somehow get a try bonus, we can let them overcome the nine point handicap the bookies are giving. If Munster have done the job the night before, it’s probably even safer for them to win. A draw would actually be ideal.
Once our game is over, the desired outcomes of the other games are more clear cut. If Connacht lose, we want Bristol to beat Stade, otherwise the Parisians could dump us out at home next week in a late show of enthusiasm for the new format. On the other hand if we’re sitting pretty on ten points, we can cheer on next week’s opponents in the post closing-time encounter, leaving us potentially a couple of points clear of both. It will most likely be all in vain though, nobody is really giving Stade a chance, so we might need to wait until next weekend for Scarlets to put it up to the Bears.
And finally to Sunday, when Scarlets make their belated tournament bow. If we win, it’s not really important, as neither of them will be a serious threat in that case, but if we are licking our wounds after a defeat, then a Scarlets win is probably better. I can’t see Bordeaux winning away to Leicester the following week, so a defeat would be the end of them, whereas if they win, they go ahead of Connacht but Scarlets could still catch us with a win at home to Bristol on the last weekend. A home win is more likely though and if that happens it is important that Scarlets don’t get a losing bonus point. In fact, even though it’s better Scarlets win, if they do lose, then the more they lose by the better.
And so that concludes the latest round of spectacular over-analysis.

In summary:
Friday
Cardiff v Harlequins 20:00 – Home win please.
Castres v Munster 20:00 – Munster for safety, Castres for glory

Saturday
Wasps v Toulouse 13:00 – Ideally a draw. Or Wasps without a try bonus, especially if Munster have won. Toulouse if you’re a pessimist.
Bristol v Stade Francais 20:00 – Stade if Connacht have just won. Bristol if we’ve lost.

Sunday
Bordeaux v Scarlets – If we beat Leicester, no matter. If not then either a Scarlets win or a heavy defeat. LBP bad.

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Just ignore the chaos and score tries

Round 1 really couldn’t have gone much better with the completion of the Pinky Slam. All desired results went the right way. Nit-pickers might say we could have done without Castres’ late bonus-point securing try but let’s not be greedy.
Before all hell broke loose later in the week, we were looking good for all the other games in Round 2 to go our way too. A fivefold accumulator on Castres, Wasps, Stade Francais, Scarlets and Cardiff all losing was coming in at odds-on. The only fly in the ointment was that Connacht themselves were 8-1 to pull off the win at Welford.
With the postponement of a raft of games and three 28-0 There-Is-No-Scope-For-Postponement-And-This-Is-Definitely-Not-A-Sanction results confusingly left to stand, the landscape is a bit different now, but remember that last season when it all went pear-shaped, home advantage was given to teams that won their games on the field of play, so the prospect of beating Leicester away is even more inviting, and with a few players back for us and their captain Christmas shopping in another team’s club shop, that may also have gotten slightly less remote.
Of the remaining fixtures, wins for Munster and Harlequins would be preferable, but seem fairly inevitable anyway. The game of the weekend is probably, quite unexpectedly, at lunchtime Sunday, so enjoy the limelight, play what’s in front of you, and let the bizarre inner workings of the EPCR play out in Neuchatel or Lausanne or wherever their current covenstead is located.
Or course this may all have changed by the time you read this …

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Round 1: Who else do we want to win?

One often wonders when reading rugby journalism if everyone’s main source of information is each others’ articles. The latest factoid that seems to be doing the rounds is is that the four match pool format of the Champions Cup means there is no margin for error and every game is a must-win.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact one of the motivations for introducing the new format was to reduce the number of teams going into the last round with no chance of progression. So they made it as easy as possible, with 16 teams from 24 qualifying, and thus creating a whole new problem of loads of teams going into the last round already qualified.

Along with the fact that eight out of twelve teams progress, we have the added feature of the higher seeded teams never playing each other, so for the weaker six teams in each pool, all their games will be against teams from the stronger half, meaning that if all games were to go with seeding, six teams would have four wins each and the other six would have none, and two teams would advance to the last sixteen despite perhaps only having a bonus point or two to show for their endeavours. While this is unlikely to happen, I think it’s safe enough bet that at least one of the six teams that get the consolation prize of a Challenge Cup spot for finishing 9th-11th will do so having shipped four defeats.

But to get to the last sixteen of the main event, it’s reasonably likely that one win might do it, especially if it is accompanied by a bonus point here and there.

Of course the easiest way for Connacht to qualify would be to win all of our games, a feat that is eminently achievable, let’s not be defeatist, but just in case it goes awry, there are some results we need from some friendly allies to help us along.

Ultimately, to get through, a team has to get ahead of four others, and having seen the opening rounds of the various leagues, the obvious candidates would have been Cardiff, Scarlets, Wasps and Castres. As it happens, all of these teams’ chances are now affected one way or the other by the recent South African misadventure. While ideally we would not necessarily want to benefit from the misfortune of others (in the case of Scarlets’ forfeit and Cardiff’s uphill battle against Toulouse) we certainly wouldn’t want to suffer as a result, which may be the case if Munster were to drop points against Wasps or Castres, so let’s hope the neighbours pull off the coup. It’ll be one to look forward to while warming up after our game on Sunday.

Other than those four, Stade Francais are the other team that might not rack up the points, especially if Connacht do their own part of the task.

So by and large, throughout the pool stage, it is preferable for Connacht if Cardiff, Scarlets, Castres, Wasps and Paris lose, which by extension means that Munster, Toulouse, Bristol and Harlequins have our permission to win all around them, though this advice may change later on if we start racking up the points and fancy a higher seeding.

So for this weekend, Scarlets unluckily have already shipped a loss and Cardiff will likely struggle, Munster have a very good shot and the bookies have installed Harlequins as one-point favourites away to Castres, so that particular clean-sweep of favourable results is achievable.

Which all leaves Leicester’s trip to Bordeaux. Instinct might say you want a Bordeaux win, and that might have been the desired result under the old system, where an early defeat might demotivate a team, but this time it’s different. If Leicester win at the Chaban-Delmas, then should they beat Connacht at Welford the following week, they would be sitting pretty and less in need of points at the Sportsground in Round 3, meanwhile Bordeaux would travel to Parc y Scarlets with a greater need. Conversely a first defeat of the season for the Tigers would leave them hungry to make amends, so all-in-all a Leicester win is probably better.

But of course, the most important result is the one at the Sportsground. I started out by dismissing the talk of must-win games, but since this is Connacht’s most winnable game, they really must win it.

Pool B fixtures, with desired winner in bold:

Sat 13:00 Cardiff v Toulouse (Cardiff travel to Quins in Round 2)
Sat 15:15 Bordeaux v Leicester (Bordeaux go to Parc y Scarlets)
Sun 13:00 Connacht v Stade Francais (Paris entertain Bristol next)
Sun 15:15 Wasps v Munster (Wasps are away to Toulouse next week)
Sun 17:30 Castres v Harlequins (Castres visit Munster also)

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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).