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Road to Europe: The one obstacle that could trip up URC candidates

SPOTLIGHT: In the ballyhoo over the United Rugby Championship play-off race, one significant fact appears to have escaped the attention of pundits.

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A top eight finish won’t necessary earn all eight a place at Europe’s top table next season.

The Sharks’ appearance in the Challenge Cup Final later this month could have major implications for teams that are chasing qualification for next season’s Champions Cup.

With each of the three leagues – the French Top 14, the URC and the English Premiership – being given eight spots in the 24-team competition, the only exception would be that the winner of the Challenge Cup gains automatic entry into next season’s Champions’ Cup.

Consequently, the league that the winner belongs to, would then lose a spot in the Champions Cup to make way for the winner of the Challenge Cup.

If the Sharks beat Gloucester in the Challenge Cup Final at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on May 24, they will take one of the URC positions at the top table.

That leaves only seven remaining URC places.

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The same would apply to the Premiership if Gloucester wins.

As the URC league season heads down the home stretch, the permutations become even more intriguing.

(Continue below …)

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The top four teams – Glasgow Warriors, Leinster, Munster and the Bulls – have already booked their play-off spots and therefore their places in the Champions Cup.

They are only jockeying for home-ground advantage in the play-offs.

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That leaves four, perhaps only three places remaining – a top-seven finish to secure your place in the Champions Cup.

That may be a problem for a team like the Lions, who are on the outside cusp of the permutations and desperate to get a top-eight place.

The Stormers are on 50 points, with Ulster (49), Edinburgh (48), Benetton (48), Connacht (44), Lions (44) and Ospreys (40) all still with mathematical chances of making the top eight.

But of those, the Stormers probably have the simplest of fixtures, facing Connacht away and the Lions at home in their final two fixtures.

Ulster have a tough task, with two Irish derbies – against Leinster (home) and Munster (away).

Edinburgh face Munster (home) and Benetton (away).

The Italian side’s biggest test will come at Loftus Versfeld this weekend against the Bulls before they host Sean Everitt’s team in their final fixture.

Connacht’s task is just as immense with Stormers and Leinster in their final fixtures.

The Lions game this weekend against log leaders Glasgow Warriors will be crucial to them having a chance in the final weekend.

The Ospreys may well look out of the running, but are likely to have a firm advantage over the Dragons and Cardiff in their two Welsh derbies and could get full points from them and sneak in via the back door.

Either way, the fight for places will be intense and the Sharks, while out of the top eight picture, will be keenly watched by the teams in the URC as they fight for their only remaining hope of qualifying for the Champions Cup next season.

The remaining fixtures the play-off contenders follow below

Stormers

Ulster

Edinburgh

Benetton

Connacht

Lions

Ospreys

 

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