With only a handful of regular season games left across Europe, the qualification and seeding picture for next season’s HEC is becoming pretty clear.
In England, barring a miraculous bonus point win for Oooooooooohhh Bath in Welford Road, the 6 qualifiers have been decided; ditto for Ireland (3 + 1 as the winner earns a place for Connacht), Wales (3), Scotland (3) and Italy (2). In France, 8 teams are in the mix for the 7 places (Biarritz will earn themselves a wild card if they win the Amlin, or Toulon will earn it for the 7th placed Frenchies).
As of right now, by our (possibly dubious) calculations, the 25 teams in contention are ranked thus (including points):
|Biarritz Olympique Pays Basque||22|
|ASM Clermont Auvergne||18|
|Stade Francais Paris||17|
|Racing Métro 92||4|
Note there are 2 more points up for grabs for the winners of the HEC and 1 for the winners of the Amlin.
Biarritz are still fighting a relegation battle in France and cannot make the playoffs. If they get one win from their last 2 games, Montpellier (4th) away or Stade (7th) at home, they are safe, and, given its their only route back to the HEC, you’d also expect them to give the Amlin a go. Their form has improved, and their crushing of Brive in the semi-final (with the class of Yachvili to the fore) looked ominous.
At the top end, Stade Francais are 7th, but have Racing Metro(6th) followed by Biarritz (9th), both away. If they don’t win this weekend, they are reliant on Toulon winning the Amlin. Realistically they will need to win both to make the top 6 and qualify automatically.
Casting a glance forward to the possible seedings next year, here’s what to watch:
- If Ulster win the HEC, they are automatically in the top tier, relegating Clermont and possibly Northampton (if Biarritz win the Amlin) to the second tier
- The second tier will definitely contain Leicester, Stade (should they qualify), Harlequins and Toulon – none of those are a soft touch and are difficult away trips, particularly Toulon and Leicester
- The third tier will definitely contain Embra, Glasgow, Saracens, Scarlets and Sale Sharks – Embra were semi-finalists this year, Sarries quarter-finalists and Sale will have Richie Gray and Danny Cipriani – those 3 are to be avoided
- If Stade don’t make it, Connacht will be in the third tier – this means Toulouse or Clermont could get a pool with Connacht and one of the Italian teams or Exeter
- Of the 3 lumbering French oafs in the bottom tier (assuming they all make it), Castres are the bunnies, Montpellier the fearsome boshers (Gorgodzilla ahoy!) and Racing Metro the entertainment merchants
For Irish provinces in the top tier, the nightmare draw looks something like Clermont/Saracens/Treviso (note Exeter > Treviso but you can’t have 2 English teams in a group), and the dream would be Quins/Glasgow/Castres. If Ulster are in tier 2, they will want Saints/Glasgow/Castres and fear Toulouse (or Clermont)/Saracens/Treviso. And if Connacht get into the 3rd tier, they will be licking their chops at Cardiff/Quins/Castres and cringing at the prospect of Toulouse/Leicester/Treviso.
Note we have included Aironi here – if the Italian federation decide to go with a Milan or Rome-based franchise, they are still bottom tier.