European Champions Cup: Benetton Rugby on 'standby' for faint qualification lifeline
Benetton Rugby’s players and staff are on standby for a possible European Champions Cup play-off for the 20th and final place for next season.
The Italy squad will meet in Calvisano on 21 May in preparation for a summer tour but that is now in doubt because of complicated qualification criteria.
Six of seven Pro14 entrants are lined up with a play-off for the final place, unless Leinster win the Champions Cup.
That scenario would open up an eighth spot, giving Benetton renewed hope.
Results and final league positions in the English Premiership and French Top 14 in terms of automatic places could also hand the Treviso club another opportunity to qualify.
Marius Goosen’s side had a strong season in the Pro14, winning 11 of 21 games including victories against Leinster and Scarlets to finish fifth in the league’s Conference B.
What are the technicalities?
There are 19 qualifiers for the Champions Cup, all decided by league position or cup achievements.
- Six teams from the Premiership go through: The guaranteed teams are Exeter, Saracens, Wasps, Newcastle and Gloucester (Challenge Cup finalists). Sale and Leicester are playing for the final place.
- Seven Pro14 teams go through: Glasgow, Munster, Cardiff, Leinster, Scarlets, Edinburgh – there is a play-off as it stands to decide the seventh between Ulster and Ospreys.
- From the French Top 14 there are six spots; Montpellier, Racing 92, Toulouse and Toulon are guaranteed, but two spots are left of which Pau could
There are five criteria to decide the final Champions Cup place.
- Champions Cup winner if not qualified – both finalists have qualified.
- Challenge Cup winner – Finalists Cardiff have qualified. Gloucester have not guaranteed their place yet.
- Challenge Cup losing finalist – As above, Gloucester could lose but guarantee their spot in the league thus leaving a place open to…
- The winner of a play-off between the Challenge Cup losing semi-finalists – Newcastle are already qualified, which would give Pau the spot – although they could yet secure a spot in the league.
- Highest ranked team from the league of the Champions Cup winner – so either Pro14 (Leinster) or Racing 92 (Top 14).
Who, what, how and why for Benetton
The Pro14 sides already qualified for the Champions Cup are Glasgow, Munster, Cardiff, Leinster, Scarlets and Edinburgh. Ulster host the Ospreys on the weekend of 18-19 May.
If Leinster do win in the Champions Cup final against French Top 14 side Racing 92 the seventh Pro14 spot would go to Ulster by virtue of league position. That could lead to the prospect of a play-off between Benetton and Welsh side Ospreys for the eighth Pro14 place – again based on league position.
The other lifeline for Benetton’s fate rests with Gloucester and Pau who are in pole position to claim the final spot. It will go to the Cherry and Whites via their place in the Challenge Cup Final if they fail to make the top six in the Premiership – as per the third criteria above.
But, if Gloucester do qualify automatically through their league position then Pau are next in line as a losing Challenge Cup semi-finalist. However, the Pyrenees-Atlantiques-based side are still in with a shout of an automatic place through their Top 14 league position. This would present Benetton with a possible route into the tournament.
As it stands the Champions Cup will go ahead next season without an Italian team for the first time in the history of the competition. But for now the Benetton players must stay match-ready just in case.
BBC Radio 5 live rugby union reporter Chris Jones
I understand the Pro14 have settled on a contingency which would see Benetton host Ospreys if the Pro 14 were to get eight Champions Cup places.
This remains a long shot, with Leinster needing to win the final and Gloucester and Pau not guaranteed to finish in the top six in their respective leagues, but it would act as a rich reward for the Italians after a drastically improved campaign. Benetton would justifiably have home advantage given their superior points tally