Connacht facing winding road to reach Promised Land
Published 11/05/2015 | 02:30
Scarlets are in pole position to join Leinster in securing automatic Champions Cup qualification while Connacht's hopes could yet hinge on a complicated three-way play-off after Saturday's stunning bonus-point win away to Zebre.
The westerners could still snatch an automatic place when a dramatic Pro12 league campaign ends next Saturday, but Welsh rivals Scarlets are now odds-on favourites to pip them to sixth place after edging past Cardiff yesterday.
With Scarlets almost assured of sixth, Connacht and Edinburgh will battle it out for seventh place, which will guarantee a spot in a Champions Cup play-off.
Following Edinburgh's shock defeat to Dragons last Friday night, Pat Lam's troops had to win to keep their European hopes alive - they did better than that, earning all five match points with their 40-10 win.
They retained sixth place - the last automatic qualifying position - for 24 hours until Scarlets, the third challenger for the elusive Champions Cup spot, emerged 16-6 winners after a desperately dogged derby clash with Cardiff.
They are now firmly in the driving seat in the race for automatic qualification. They also have the advantage of playing whipping boys Treviso in their final game, while Connacht must entertain league leaders Ospreys.
Connacht either need a bonus point win and a Scarlets loss to claim sixth, or a win without a bonus point and Scarlets losing in Italy by more than seven points.
Edinburgh could still claim sixth but they would need an improbable sequence of results and an even more unlikely swing in points differential to do so; like Connacht, their best hope seems to be a play-off.
This would entail a trip to Kingsholm to play Gloucester and, if victory was secured there, another away game against the seventh-placed team in France - currently Montpellier.
"It's up to the boys to do the job," said Connacht coach Pat Lam (pictured). "We have to have a really good build-up, get back home and build up to what is a massive game for us.
"Ospreys, who beat Glasgow convincingly, are coming but we are now ahead of Edinburgh."
At the top of the table, the play-off contenders may have already been confirmed but with three teams tied on 70 points as the scramble for home semi-final advantage continues.
"No-one's run away with it," said Munster coach Anthony Foley after his side were denied victory by Ulster's thrilling comeback to draw in Belfast.
"Every team has won games and lost games and fought for draws like Ulster did today, similarly we did that over in Scarlets. At the death we fought back as well and everyone was fighting tooth and nail throughout the year to get results to top the table."
Munster are favourites now to be at home in the semi-final as they play Dragons in their final game - Ulster must travel to Glasgow - but the Welsh side's win against Edinburgh prompted Foley to urge caution.
"Everyone assumes we'll get five points but we know how good Dragons are.
"So we'll take nothing for granted in Cork next weekend and we'll make sure we're fully set for that game. Other results are out of our hands and we've just got to do the best we can for ourselves and see where that leaves us.
"There have been about 20 semi-finals played and none won by the away side so that says it all in itself. That's why everyone's fighting that hard. Everybody wants one. "
For Ulster coach Neil Doak, his side must re-group if they want to secure a home draw. They would need a bonus point victory to overtake Munster if Foley's men beat Dragons without a bonus point, while they would also have to outscore Munster by three tries.
"Obviously we do have to rely on others doing us a favour," says Doak, whose side may yet host a final without them.
"We will focus on Glasgow; they obviously had a difficult game and did not get the result they were hoping for and the Ospreys did well.
"There are four quality sides in the top four and on their day anybody can beat anybody, we just have to make sure we regroup after this game and make sure we are ready to go come Monday," said Doak.
Scarlets now have their sights on Leinster's fifth position as Champions Cup seeding will be based on league standings.
"We were approaching these final two games knowing we needed two wins and that hasn't changed," said coach Matt O'Connor, whose side need at least a point to remain in fifth and avoid being amongst the lower ranked seeds.
"We'll go to Edinburgh and look to put out a performance and get the result" said O'Connor.
In France, Eddie O'Sullivan (Biarritz) and Jeremy Davidson (Aurillac) missed out on promotion play-offs.
In the top flight, Jonathan Sexton's Racing Metro lost the Paris derby and Grenoble lost again, leaving Bernard Jackman's club fighting to preserve their status.
Niall Morris helped Leicester all but secure their Premiership play-off status by scoring a try in the defeat of Wasps while Exeter stunned Mark McCall's Saracens side, leaving them in danger of missing the league play-offs.