Sale Sharks' Heineken Champions Cup hopes rest on Top 14's La Rochelle
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 20/05/19 3:28pm
The Gallagher Premiership's regular season may have concluded over the weekend, but one club's Champions Cup hopes for next season remain in limbo.
When Sale Sharks won a helter-skelter final day clash with Gloucester by a near-ridiculous scoreline of 46-41 at the AJ Bell on Saturday, they looked set to climb into the Premiership's top six and seal a return to Europe's premier competition.
That was until Rhys Priestland kicked an 80th minute conversion for Bath to secure a 31-30 victory over Leicester at Welford Road - moving the West Country club back up into sixth by a single point, and with it, clinching a Champions Cup place.
The Sharks were left seventh in the table, but their Champions Cup hopes are not completely dashed.
That is because, owing to the EPCR's qualification stipulations, if La Rochelle are to finish in the top six of the Top 14 this weekend, then Sale will gain a place into the Champions Cup. Here's why...
The Champions Cup's 20 qualification places are allocated as such: Premiership top six, Top 14 top six, PRO14 top seven and one final spot.
That final place is reserved for the Champions Cup winners (Saracens) - if not already qualified, which Saracens are - then the Challenge Cup winners (Clermont) - if not already qualified, which Clermont are - then the Challenge Cup runners-up (La Rochelle) - if not already qualified - and then if they are, due to Saracens winning the European Cup, the Premiership would gain an extra place, which would go to Sale.
Before the weekend, La Rochelle sat in fourth within the Top 14 and looked highly likely to qualify via league position, opening up that extra Premiership slot. However, a 29-19 defeat to Lyon on Saturday, coupled with wins for Racing 92, Castres and Montpellier has seen La Rochelle drop to seventh.
Jono Gibbes' charges are guaranteed a Champions Cup spot for next season already due to their performance as Challenge Cup runners-up (as winners Clermont and Champions Cup winners Saracens are already there), so if they finish outside the top six in France, the 20th European qualification spot would go to them and not Sale.
In that circumstance, seven teams would qualify from the Top 14 as opposed to seven from the Premiership. But there is still one round of Top 14 games to play, and La Rochelle will want a tilt at the barrages.
La Rochelle host a Bordeaux-Begles side with nothing to play for on Saturday, live on Sky Sports, while Racing 92 travel to Agen, Castres host Toulon and Montpellier travel to second-placed Clermont, also live on Sky Sports - but a Clermont side already assured of finishing second and of a week off during the barrages.
How strong will Clermont go? It could prove crucial. La Rochelle and Montpellier sit level on 66 points, but Vern Cotter's side sit one crucial place above in sixth due to a better head-to-head record with La Rochelle.
If you're a Sale fan, you need La Rochelle to finish in the top six in order to be watching Champions Cup rugby next season.
For that to happen, La Rochelle must win and one of Racing, Castres and Montpellier must lose, or a La Rochelle bonus-point win would be enough if all the sides were to win, provided Montpellier win without one at Clermont.
It should make for cracking viewing!