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Seasons will mix as Ulster prepare to kick-start European mission

 

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Prize possession: Saracens boss Mark McCall with the European crown

Prize possession: Saracens boss Mark McCall with the European crown

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Dan McFarland

Dan McFarland

�INPHO/Bryan Keane

Prize possession: Saracens boss Mark McCall with the European crown

Already facing the longest season of their careers, Ulster's players could see their 2019-20 campaign overlap with next year.

Not that they'd be averse to such a scenario, given that such an outcome would be the result only of participation in the Champions Cup final.

Confirmation of a wrap-around season came yesterday when EPCR confirmed the dates set aside to conclude the Champions Cup halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with the last-eight now pencilled in for September 19.

Dan McFarland led his Ulster side to a second quarter-final in as many years after the concluding round of the pool stages in January but the outbreak of the virus saw the trip to Toulouse postponed indefinitely all the way back in March.

With rugby in Ireland set to resume with two sets of derby fixtures behind closed doors in the Aviva Stadium in two months' time, however, EPCR have now fixed weekends in the calendar for the remaining fixtures.

The quarter-finals - which will also see Leinster play host to Mark McCall's Saracens - will take place the weekend of September 19, one week after the Guinness PRO14 final, with the semi-finals coming a week later. The final, which is still planned to take place in Marseille, would be held on October 17.

Should Ulster or Leinster hit the ground running, it is feasible that their 2019-20 campaign will run seamlessly into 2020-21 without a pause.

Indeed, if either side makes the European final, they would be wrapping up 2019-20 having already made a start into 2020-21.

Two rounds of PRO14 derbies, followed by two rounds of play-offs, will take place on four consecutive weekends starting on August 22, followed by those quarter-finals and semi-finals of Europe.

Next season's PRO14 is planned, government restrictions permitting, to start the week after that, with two rounds to be played before the 2020 European champions are finally crowned.

EPCR also confirmed that talks are ongoing with regards to next season's European competition with a 24-team tournament having been up for discussion.

That would see each team play only four pool fixtures, commencing mid-December, rather than the customary six, while each pool winner would advance to the quarter-finals with no place in the knockouts for any best runners-up.

All such plans are contingent, of course, on there being no second wave of Covid-19 in the autumn, while there are still all-important international games to reschedule.

A vote to decide where unfulfilled Test fixtures, such as Ireland's Six Nations clashes with Italy and France, fit into the equation will take place on Tuesday.

KEY DATES: August 22: 2019-20 PRO14 round 14; August 29: 2019-20 PRO14 round 15; September 5: 2019-20 PRO14 semi-finals; September 12: 2019-20 PRO14 final; September 19: 2019-20 Champions Cup quarter-finals; September 26: 2019-20 Champions Cup semi-finals; October 3: 2020-21 PRO14 round 1; October 10: 20-21 PRO14 round 2; October 17: 2019-20 Champions Cup final.

Belfast Telegraph