PRO14 plan to finish season over four weekends

By Brendan O'Brien

Munster
Munster's Mike Haley is tackled by Andrew Porter of Leinster at Thomond Park. The final four, as things stand, would result in Leinster v Munster and Edinburgh v Ulster semi-final pairings. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The Guinness PRO14 makes for an unwieldy operation at the best of times but tournament organisers have pulled any numbers of strands together amid a global pandemic and formulated a plan which will see the season restart on August 22 and end on September 12.

It will be no small achievement if they can pull it off.

The limited time and scope available to them after three months of shutdown, and in an environment where clubs and unions have been scrambling over one another for dates to play delayed fixtures, is clear given the start date for the 2020/21 campaign is to be October 3.

That is just three weeks after the proposed end to the current Covid-19-interupted schedule.

Concessions have been made to the pandemic. They had to be, not least by a competition that incorporates six jurisdictions and two conferences. Changes have now been made to European qualification requirements, the length and timings of the season itself, and the play-off venues.

Rankings for European qualification next season have already been decided, the cutoff point being established as of the round 13 games played prior to the shutdown. These include the two games that did not get played and which have been deemed 0-0 draws.

The expectation is that the Heineken Champions Cup will be expanded to 24 teams on a once-off basis for 2020/21. That means eight teams would make it from the PRO14 and that, in turn, means Connacht, currently fourth in Conference B, will join the other three provinces in the European Cup.

That's one headache all but solved.

As for the PRO14 itself, this season's schedule has been stripped back from 21 rounds to 15. That leaves two still to be played. It has been confirmed that the first of these will proceed across all of the territories on the weekend of August 22/23.

The IRFU had already announced a double bill of interpro derbies on that weekend at the Aviva Stadium, with Leinster to face Munster and Ulster meeting Connacht, but the PRO14's ability to get everybody up and running at the one time is a huge step forward.

Another round of derbies will follow at the end of August, followed by semi-finals and a decider on a weekly basis.

"Safety has been, and will continue to be, the highest priority as we look to activate our plans to restart the 2019/20 season,” said tournament director David Jordan on Thursday. “We are very fortunate to be in a position where everyone involved is confident that we can conclude the season on the field of play.

"The work and diligence of our leading medical personnel at our unions, our clubs, World Rugby and key stakeholders to get us to this point has been immense. Operating across five territories often brings different complexities to the Guinness PRO14 but our unions have worked hard to bring proposals to their governments so we may put plans into action."

The final four, as things stand, would result in Leinster v Munster and Edinburgh v Ulster semi-final pairings. Munster, second in Conference B, are eight points ahead of Scarlets. Ulster, trailing Leinster in Conference A, have a nine-point buffer on Glasgow.

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