Play-off the most likely route to Europe for Ulster

Champions Cup rugby
Champions Cup rugby

Ulster’s most likely route to a place in next season’s European Champions Cup will be through a play-off in the Guinness PRO14.

The Irish Province find themselves in a precarious position of potentially missing out of playing in Europe’s top tier for the first time in the history of the competition.

Failure to finish in the top three places in PRO14’s Conference B means Ulster missed out on one of the six automatic places available to the PRO14.

However, a fourth place finish keeps them in the mix for the seventh available spot - although there is also the potential now for an additional place becoming available for a PRO14 club.

Currently Ulster would face Ospreys at Kingspan Stadium on the weekend of May 19 with the winner taking the seventh and final place available for PRO14 teams.

But if the additional spot was also to come to fruition, Ulster, as the highest placed non-qualifier for next season’s Champions Cup would automaticially go through as the seventh place team and Ospreys would face Benetton in a play-off at Liberty Stadium.

Yesterday, PRO14 league organisers officially revealed details of how the seventh - and potential eighth - places in Europe would be sorted.

In a release PRO14 said: “Should PRO14 Rugby receive an additional Champions Cup place via EPCR’s criteria for selecting the 20th place then the following will occur:

“PRO14 Rugby’s seventh place will be awarded automatically to the team in the Guinness PRO14 with the highest points total who is not already qualified for the Champions Cup.

“That place would be awarded to Ulster Rugby, who have finished the season ranked 4th in Conference B with 62 points

A Play-Off will then take place to determine PRO14 Rugby’s eighth Champions Cup berth between the highest ranked team from each Conference who has not automatically qualified.

“The match will be played at the home venue of the club that has the most Championship points at the end of the regular season. In the case that Ulster were awarded an automatic place,

“Benetton Rugby, who finished 5th in Conference B with 55 points would host Ospreys who finished 5th in Conference A with 44 points.”

That would appear good news for Ulster, however for the additional place to be awarded to PRO14 a number of criteria has to happen.

Firstly Leinster must win the Champions Cup this season - they face Racing 92 in the final on May 12.

And all semi-finalists from the Challenge Cup qualify for Champions Cup via league standings (top six finish in Aviva and Top 14).

Currently Cardiff Blues, Gloucester and Newcastle Falcons are set to qualify for the Champions Cup, but Pau (Top 14) are not.

All will be revealed this weekend when Pau play their final game of the Top 14 against Toulon at home.

Pau currently sit in eighth place on points difference from La Rochelle, both two points behind sixth place Castres.

For Pau to finish sixth they would need to firstly defeat Toulon at home in their final league fixture this weekend.

Castres would have to lose to second from bottom side Oyonnax and La Rochelle would also need to lose at home to Stade Francais.

Given the full permutations in France alone, it is likely that PRO14 will not get that additional Champions Cup place and Ulster will meet Ospreys in a play-off.