Thursday 27 April 2017

Explained: How a resurgent Connacht could miss out on the Champions Cup even if they make the Pro12 top six

18 February 2017; Connacht head coach Pat Lam ahead of the Guinness PRO12 Round 15 match between Connacht and Newport Gwent Dragons at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
18 February 2017; Connacht head coach Pat Lam ahead of the Guinness PRO12 Round 15 match between Connacht and Newport Gwent Dragons at the Sportsground in Galway. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

It has quietly been a solid couple of weeks for Pat Lam and his Connacht players.

While the rugby public's attention is consumed by the Six Nations, the defending Pro12 champions have made a good fist of clawing their way back up the league table.

The westerners have won three straight fixtures, with the only disappointment coming at home to the Dragons in the second leg of the treble, when Connacht failed to claim a bonus point despite taking an early 14-0 lead.

Still, they managed to snatch an impressive late away win in Cardiff, to narrow the gap to just three points between themselves and the Welsh side.

Connacht currently lie in eighth place in the Pro12, and are seven points behind Glasgow in sixth, with an away game against Zebre in hand, which should reduce the deficit further.

Since the introduction of merit based Champions Cup qualification to the Pro12, finishing in the top six has become a synonym for booking your place in the marquee tournament - but that might not be enough for Connacht this year.

There are seven Champions Cup places on offer, with each nation competing in the league guaranteed at least one participant, with league position dictating the next three spots.

That automatic place for each country makes Connacht's task in qualifying very difficult this season. While they would only be two points off Glasgow if they take maximum points away to Zebre, even if they ultimately finish ahead of the Scottish side in sixth, they wouldn't qualify for the Champions Cup.

Glasgow would be Scotland's automatic representative in the competition, so Connacht would have to catch the fifth place team to make their way into next season's tournament.

As it stands, Ulster are in fifth, with a 14 point lead over their provincial rivals. Both sides have games in hand against Zebre to come, leaving Connacht with a mountain to climb to repeat last season's qualification feat.

There is some consolation for Connacht though. The two highest ranked teams in the league who haven't qualified for the Champions Cup will take part in a four-team playoff with the highest ranked side in England and France who haven't made the cut.

Unfortunately for the Pro12 sides, they will be drawn away for the playoff semi-final, adding another layer of difficultly to reaching Europe's top table.

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