Leinster fighting for Euro future
O'Connor's men still have Challenge Cup demotion hanging over them in Pro12 run-in
Published 28/04/2015 | 02:30
Even as a Champions Cup final takes place in Twickenham this Saturday without any Irish representation, the Irish provinces will hardly wallow in a weekend off as they prepare for an anxious final fortnight of Pro12 action.
Meritocracy, the Trojan Horse upon which the Anglo-French alliance redesigned the newly-inaugurated Champions Cup has, altered the goalposts in more ways than one.
While the new calendar has, as Leinster would argue vociferously regardless of their obvious internal issues, made it more difficult for the Irish provinces to compete in the latter stages, Pro12 rankings are now directly linked to European status.
Hence, aside from the annual grappling for league pre-eminence, there is now a more obvious correlation between Pro12 performance and European qualification and seeding.
With one stroke during the negotiations last season, effectively, the weighting of European history was erased as the primary component of the hierarchy in the Champions Cup; now league status has become as important.
The six highest-ranked clubs from both the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 will book their places in next season's Champions Cup; seven from the Pro12 will qualify, with the proviso that at least one club advances from each of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy.
The play-offs for the 20th place at the top table will include the seventh-placed team in the Premiership - or winner of the Challenge Cup if from the Premiership and not already qualified (ie, Gloucester, should they beat Edinburgh in Friday's final).
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The same principle applies to the Top 14, albeit they have no club in the Challenge Cup final so their seventh-placed club will qualify for the play-off.
Edinburgh will not qualify by winning the Challenge Cup final so must rely on finishing seventh in the Pro12.
If the qualification cut fell now, Northampton, Bath, Saracens, Leicester, Exeter and Wasps would qualify from England, while Gloucester would pip Sale to the play-offs by winning the Challenge Cup.
In the Pro12, Glasgow Warriors, Munster, Ulster, Ospreys, Leinster, Scarlets and Benetton Treviso would qualify, with Edinburgh advancing to a play-off against, firstly, the English qualifier and then the French play-off contender.
In France, the qualifiers as it stands are Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, Stade Francais, Racing Metro and Oyonnax, with Montpellier awaiting the play-off final against the winners of the Premiership vs Pro12 play-off contenders.
If all that sounds like a headache, it would be nothing compared to that facing Leinster should they fail to make next season's Champions Cup - a live possibility.
Still to play: Treviso (h), Edinburgh (a)
Few would guarantee anything given Leinster's vastly underwhelming league form, and it is conceivable that the three clubs beneath them could overtake them.
It seems unlikely but then so have Leinster's performances in the league: with Edinburgh fighting for a Challenge Cup spot and Treviso in a live scrap with Zebre for the sole Italian berth, this is a tricky pair of games for Matt O'Connor's men.
They are capable of winning both and guaranteeing fifth place but that would still leave them stranded as third seeds next term; fail to garner enough points and Leinster could be bottom seeds, with Toulon, Clermont and Saracens just one nightmare trio of pool opponents next season.
Few Leinster supporters dare to contemplate Connacht gaining nine or ten points, while the Blues gain just one or none; this would see Leinster dumped into the Challenge Cup.
Still to play: Ulster (a), Dragons (h)
Munster face Ulster on Saturday week in what is nominally a battle to secure a home semi-final, but the winners will also have an eye on top spot in the regular season and the carrot of a top seeding in the Champions Cup.
Munster's ambitions are aided by the fact that they conclude their regular league programme against a Dragons side who have nothing to play for but pride.
Should they slip up in their final two matches, Munster might be forced on the road in the semi-final, where they have struggled in recent years, while also plunging them into the third tranche of Champions Cup seeds.
Munster fans won't need reminding that this was one of the main contributing factors to their demise in Europe this season as, despite being second seeds, they were forced into a pool containing Clermont and Saracens.
Still to play: Munster (h), Glasgow (a)
Ulster face into another must-win interpro clash on Saturday week which must be viewed in the context of a fiendishly difficult trip to face irrepressible Glasgow on the final weekend of regular matches.
Ulster have their destiny in their own hands and, like the rest of the top four, they could conceivably finish in any one of the top four positions, with consequent ramifications for their Champions Cup fate next season.
Poor seeding has frustrated their progress more often than not in recent campaigns, so Neil Doak's men will be eager to win both games and earn a top seeding, as well as providing them with home comforts all the way to the Pro12 final.
Still to play: Zebre (a), Ospreys (h)
Connacht's chances of achieving a historic qualification for the Champions Cup on merit - they thrice did so when former rules allowed them to get in thanks to Leinster's European success - are now out of their hands following the crushing defeat to Glasgow which continued their poor run of form.
With Zebre and Ospreys, their final two opponents, also involved at the sharp end of Pro 12 and Champions Cup matters, few would give Pat Lam's eighth-placed side any chance of overhauling two of the three teams directly above them in the table.
Even a haul of nine or ten points would require Edinburgh, Scarlets and Leinster to fold like a deck of cards - an unlikely prospect.
The fairytale scenario, for Connacht fans still perturbed at the prospect of Robbie Henshaw decamping to Leinster in search of Champions Cup football, would be to see them overtake their provincial rivals.
It is an unlikely prospect but it is worth remembering that, should the sides finish level on match points, the Westerners would advance as they would have more match wins, the primary consideration if teams finish level on points.