Explained: Here's how all the Irish provinces can qualify for the Champions Cup next season
Published 30/03/2016 | 12:46
There are four rounds to go in the Guinness Pro12 and with all of the Irish teams in contention for the playoffs, we are in for the most exciting finale in the league's history.
Connacht and Leinster lead the table in first and second respectively but for Munster and Ulster in fourth and fifth, Champions Cup qualification is probably taking precedent over a Pro12 title challenge at the moment.
The revenue loss for failing to make Europe's marquee club rugby tournament would be catastrophic for any of the provinces, but as things stand, all four SHOULD qualify for next year's Champions Cup.
The Pro12's qualification rules can be a little hard to follow but here is how it breaks down:
1. The 'top seven' finishers qualify... however, there must be at least one representative from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy.
2. Since no Italian team will finish in the top seven, you really must finish in the top six to qualify.
3. Last season, Connacht, who finished seventh, played in a playoff versus the similarly placed sides from England and France for the final spot. This year, to avoid post-World Cup fixture congestion, that mini-tournament has been scrapped.
Instead, the team who wins the Challenge Cup will be awarded a Champions Cup place. If they have already qualified, then the next highest-placed club in their league who haven't qualified will be in.
Here is how the Pro12 table looks at the moment.
While Glasgow may look poised to slip out, they are more likely to finish in the playoffs, as three of their final five games are against Italian opposition. Were Ulster (who have Leinster and Connacht at home) or Munster (who have Leinster and Connacht away) to finish seventh, then they would be relying on Connacht to win the Challenge Cup in order to qualify for the Champions Cup.
It isn't a foregone conclusion just yet, but barring a sensational collapse by Ulster or Munster, all four Irish teams should be playing at the highest level of European rugby next year for the first time since 2013/14.
What is also worth remembering in the league shake-up is that where you finish in the Pro12 determines your Champions Cup seeding for the following season. Leinster were punished heavily for their fifth place effort during Matt O'Connor's final campaign with a pool featuring Toulon, Bath and Wasps this season.
Qualifying for the Pro12 playoffs last season saw all four semi-finalists in the top two Champions Cup seeding pots this year, which is usually important in avoiding some of Europe's biggest names - although Ulster and Munster were still given very tough draws in this campaign.
So even if one of the provinces nab that last qualification spot, it could mean being grouped with a trio of behemoths and a short-lived European adventure next season once again.