URC teams will be rooting for Gloucester in the Challenge Cup final against the Sharks

FILE - The EPCR Challenge Cup trophy on display. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP

FILE - The EPCR Challenge Cup trophy on display. Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP

Published May 14, 2024


It may sound like a strange concept, but several of the contenders for the top eight spots in the United Rugby Championship may become Gloucester supporters ahead of the showdown against the Sharks in the final of the EPCR Challenge Cup.

While the URC teams generally would support each other in a major cup competition against teams from another league, the Sharks’ appearance in the Challenge Cup final could have major implications for teams that are vying for a spot in next season’s Champions Cup because of the structure of the competition.

With each of the three leagues — the French Top14, 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 win then the URC top seven teams, and not top eight would be given automatic entry into the Champions’ Cup.

As the season starts to gear towards a climax, the race for places in the playoffs is hotting up, with the extra spice of a place in the Champions Cup next season fuelling the final two rounds of the regular season in a flurry of permutations.

The top four teams, Glasgow Warriors, Leinster, Munster and the Bulls, have already booked their playoff spots and therefore their places in the Champions’ Cup, but the bunfight over the other four playoff spots promises to be heated.

And now with the possibility that the eighth placed team may not get a Champions’ Cup spot, it makes it even more crucial to end in seventh, and not eighth position.

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

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) while 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 filling their final fixutres while 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.

Remaining fixtures of play-off contenders:

5th: Stormers (50pts) — Connacht (a), Lions (h)

6th: Ulster (49pts) — Leinster (h), Munster (a)

7th: Edinburgh (48pts) — Munster (h), Benetton (a)

8th: Benetton (48pts) — Bulls (a), Edinburgh (h)

9th: Connacht (44pts) — Stormers (h), Leinster (a)

10th: Lions (44pts) — Glasgow (h), Stormers (a)

11th: Ospreys (40pts) — Dragons (h), Cardiff (a,)