This weekend sees the final round of Challenge Cup pool games and, as ever, Cardiff Blues fans are getting the calculators out and consulting competition rule books to try and work out how we will qualify, and who we might be up against in the quarter-final.
For a change this season though we actually have qualification in our own hands, and even if we lose there is still a decent possibility of qualifying for the next round of the Challenge Cup.
As such, there is one simple equation for Cardiff; beat Bristol and we’re through. No more, no less, a win is all we need, and Danny Wilson has named a strong team to ensure we get just that. What happens next? Well that depends on results elsewhere across Europe…
We might finish top of the pool?!
Firstly, and we’re starting with the unlikely but you’ve got to aim high, if we win and Bath fail to beat Pau at The Rec, then we go through as group winners. With the French side bringing a distinctly second string side over to the West Country, and the home team on the back of an eight-try hammering of Bristol, it’s not even a possibility really, but it’s ok to dream!
So, second it is then?
Yes, and that’s as low as we will get. With Bristol seven points behind they cannot catch us, therefore we are in with a shot of qualifying for the next round whatever happens in our game as we are assured of a top two finish.
We can lose and qualify?
It’s quite simple on that front too, if Newport fail to win out in Brive we will definitely be in the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup, even if Bristol hammer us. With that game kicking off an hour before us we should have quite a good idea of what we need to do by half-time in our match.
If it does play out that we lose to Bristol and Newport fail to win, then we will finish eighth place in the rankings, and therefore face the best qualifiers. Unless Ospreys suffer a surprise loss away to Newcastle, and there’s massive swing in points difference for both them and Gloucester, then it will be a trip away to the Liberty Stadium.
Can we avoid the dreaded Ospreys?
Yes we can, but again we’re relying on results elsewhere. Firstly, we have to win our game to do this. Then it comes down to two games. La Rochelle v Treviso, and Stade Francais v Harlequins, with the teams we are specifically looking at in bold.
First up will be La Rochelle’s match on Saturday evening, 8pm, as they host Treviso. Although unlikely, it’s not impossible that they will come unstuck against the Pro12 whipping boys, and if they fail to win then they will slip below us and put us as the second best runner-up.
If they were to win though we’d be waiting until Sunday at 1pm for Stade to host Quins, with the winner claiming the pool runner-up spot. If Quins claim the away victory, then they will keep us down as the second or third best runner-up, but if it’s Stade without a bonus point then we would be boosted up the rankings.
So, to summarise, if only one of La Rochelle and Harlequins lose, as long as Stade Francais don’t win with a bonus point, then we will be the second best runner-up assuming we win against Bristol. In that situation we will play Gloucester away.
If, as unsurprising as it is, both of those results come in, then we will actually end up as the best runner-up and end up with another trip to Bath in all probability. Make of that what you will….
What’s the best outcome?
Personally I think the best would be the trip to Gloucester, mainly due to avoiding Ospreys and Bath, as well as the fact that Newport actually won at Kingsholm in the European knockouts last season which should offer some confidence.
However, the most likely has to be the Ospreys game, as La Rochelle are likely to beat Treviso and I would suggest Harlequins are favourites for the game against struggling Stade Francais.
So no need to get saving for any lengthy European away trips in the quarter-finals, and if we qualify and beat our opponents we will be guaranteed a home semi-final as the tournament rewards those who win away quarter-finals. So it might be a cheap route to the Final!
But I’m getting ahead of myself anyway, first and foremost we must beat Bristol, and with a strong team I’m confident of that. What happens next then lies with the Gods, but in knockout rugby anything can happen.