Resolution leaves Connacht set for next season’s Champions Cup
Conference tables as they stood before lockdown will be cut-off point for qualification
Connacht players celebrate after their win against Gloucester at the Sportsground, Galway on December 14th, 2019. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Connacht are virtually certain to join the other three Irish provinces in next season’s Heineken Champions Cup following an agreement reached by the board of Celtic Rugby to make the Conference tables as they stood in mid-March after 13 rounds the cut-off point for European qualification.
The two postponed games from round 13, Benetton v Ulster and Zebre v Ospreys, will be declared 0-0 draws, with two points awarded to each side.
Under current rules, the top seven in the Pro14 qualify for the Champions Cup, with Connacht currently fourth in Conference B and thus in line to face the Dragons at home were there to be a play-off for that final place.
However, it is expected that next season’s Champions Cup will be expanded to 24 teams on a one-off basis so as to simply incorporate the top eight from each of the three qualifying competitions – the Pro14, Top 14 and Premiership.
In that scenario the top four in both Conference A and B would qualify for next season’s Champions Cup, which would include all four Irish provinces along with Edinburgh, Glasgow, Scarlets and the Dragons.
The decision to make the existing tables the cut-off point is because the 2019-20 Pro14 will be completed with a mixture of both scheduled and unscheduled derbies, the net effect being that Benetton and Zebre would meet four times rather than three, and ditto the two Scottish sides and two South African teams.
However, if the Guinness Pro14 resumes as is provisionally planned at the end of August with two rounds of derbies in each of the five participating countries, the points accrued will determine the final standings and the Pro14 play-off picture.
Hence securing home semi-finals, the destination of the Guinness Pro14 2019-20 title and seeding for the 2020-21 Heineken Champions Cup draw will all be on the line in some shape or form for the provinces.
In particular, while Munster will be strengthened by the arrival of World Cup winners Damian de Allende and RG Snyman, in order to avoid a semi-final against Leinster for the third season in a row, Johann van Graan’s team will now have only two games to overtake Edinburgh, who are two points ahead of them in Conference B.
Unless Edinburgh lose twice to Glasgow, therefore, in all probability Munster will need to beat Leinster if the Pro14 resumes as planned with a game between these two old rivals on August 22nd, as well as Ulster a week later.
Munster could yet be denied second in Conference B and a place in the semi-finals by the Scarlets, whose final two games are against Cardiff and the Dragons, although Munster are eight points clear in second place.
Were Munster to top Conference B, they would almost certainly set up an all-Irish semi-final against Ulster. Dan McFarland’s side will now go into the final two rounds with a nine-point buffer over third-placed Glasgow in Conference A, and so two points would be certain of securing Ulster a semi-final place.
The only team who are unaffected by the revised tables are Leinster, the unbeaten, runaway leaders of Conference A, who had already secured a home semi-final for a fifth season in succession.
Further limiting the possibility of matches between teams from different countries, there will be no quarter-finals. Rather, it is intended that the Pro14 will skip straight to the semi-finals.
As things stand, Leinster are set to face Munster, and Edinburgh will be playing Ulster, on the first weekend in September and the final on Saturday September 12th. Where these putative semi-finals might take place is another matter and hinges on the respective Irish and UK government restrictions on public gatherings and guidelines on social distancing.
Were Leinster to face Munster in a “home” semi-final for the third year in a row, but it had to be played behind closed doors, then it may make more sense to hold the game at the RDS. Were social distancing of one metre in place, then the game would be moved to the Aviva Stadium, where the capacity would be 18,500.
As both the Principality Stadium and Cardiff Arms Park are being used as field hospitals in the Welsh fight against the coronavirus pandemic, the likeliest venue to run off the remaining four Welsh derbies is Parc Y Scarlets. Depending on Swansea City’s football commitments, the Liberty Stadium might become available as well.
Murrayfield is the probable venue for the Scottish derbies, whereas in Italy and South Africa the games could be played in the respective home grounds.
The Top 14 has been abandoned for the season and the 2020-21 campaign is set to kick off on the first weekend of September, but the French clubs are committed to running off the 2019-20 Champions Cup and Challenge Cup if possible.
The quarter-finals are pencilled in for the weekend of September 18th, 19th and 20th, and the semi-finals a week later, with the final provisionally scheduled for Saturday October 17th in Marseilles.
No less than the Top 14, or the Premiership in England, the Guinness Pro14 will not be of a mind to delay the start of the 2020-21 season until a later day in accordance with a new globally aligned calendar. So it is that the opening weekend in October has been targeted for round one of the next season’s Pro14.
World Rugby will decide on June 30th which dates in October are to be set aside for the postponed 2020 Guinness Six Nations games. But the likeliest dates for Ireland’s games at home to Italy and away to France are October 24th and 31st respectively.
Rugby – Provisional Fixture List
Saturday Aug 22nd: Pro14 – Leinster v Munster, Aviva Stadium.
(Also Scarlets v Cardiff, Glasgow v Edinburgh, Benetton v Zebre, Cheetahs v Kings).
Sunday Aug 23rd: Pro14 – Connacht v Ulster, Aviva Stadium
(Also Ospreys v Dragons).
Saturday Aug 29th: Pro14 – Leinster v Ulster, Aviva Stadium.
(Also Scarlets v Dragons, Edinburgh v Glasgow, Zebre v Benetton, Cheetahs v Kings).
Sunday Aug 30th: Pro14 – Munster v Connacht, Aviva Stadium.
(Also Cardiff v Ospreys.)
Saturday Sept 5th: Pro14 semi-finals.
Saturday Sept 12th: Pro14 Grand Final.
Fri/Sat/Sun Sept 18th/19th/20th: Heineken Champions Cup quarter-finals – Leinster v Saracens, Aviva Stadium; Toulouse v Ulster.
Fri/Sat/Sun Sept 25th/26th/27th: Heineken Champions Cup semi-finals.
Sat/Sun Oct 3rd/4th: 2020-21 Pro14 – Round 1.
Sat/Sun Oct 10th/11th: Pro 14 Round 2.
Saturday Oct 17th: Heineken Champions Cup Final, Marseilles.
Saturday Oct 24th: 2020 Six Nations – Ireland v Italy, Aviva Stadium.
Saturday Oct 31st: 2020 Six Nations – France v Ireland, Stade de France. Pro14 Round 3
November: Guinness Series/Test window tba.