Plenty still to play for as Pro14 reaches crucial stage
Leinster in pole position as Leo Cullen's team bid to ensure a home semi-final
Munster’s Dan Goggin scores a try at Outeniqua Park despite the efforts of Michael Makase of the Southern Kings. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The run-in to this season’s Guinness Pro14 has, as expected, been made more complicated by the new format wherein the expanded competition has been divided into two conferences of seven teams.
Amid the jostling for home semi-finals, home quarter-finals and qualification for both the play-offs themselves and next season’s European Champions Cup, theoretically ten teams still have something to play for.
The top three in each conference will qualify for the Pro14 play-offs, with the conference winners gaining a direct bye to the semi-finals, which they will host, on the weekend of May 18th/19th/20th, which is a week after the European Champions Cup final in Bilbao.
The second- and third-placed teams from each conference will advance to the quarter-finals, with each of the second-placed teams hosting the third-placed team from the opposite conference.
As things stand therefore, Munster would host Edinburgh in one quarter-final, with Scarlets at home to the Cheetahs in the other, on the weekend of May 4th/5th/6th – a week before that aforementioned Champions Cup final. Leinster would then host the winners of Munster v Edinburgh in one semi-final, with Glasgow at home to the Scarlets or the Cheetahs in the other semi-final.
But there is still plenty of scope for those prospective match-ups to change.
As regards the Pro14’s seven qualifying places for next season’s Champions Cup, the top three in each province will be joined by the winner of a one-off match between the fourth ranked sides in each Conference.
As the South African sides are currently ineligible to qualify for the European competitions, as things stand the fourth-placed side in Conference A, namely the Cardiff Blues, would qualify for next season’s Champions Cup, while the fifth-ranked, the Ospreys, would meet the fourth ranked side in Conference B, which at the moment is Ulster.
Leinster are best-placed of the Irish provinces, and two more wins, or conceivably one, from their remaining games against Benetton at the RDS this Saturday evening (kick-off 7.35) or Connacht in Galway a fortnight subsequently, would ensure them of a home semi-final. This would also earn them a bye on the weekend before the Champions Cup final.
Given Glasgow need only one more win from three games to top Conference A, realistically Munster are vying for a home quarter-final. Victory over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein this Friday would ensure as much, although defeat would leave them requiring a win over Ulster at Thomond Park in their final game to do so.
Munster would then most likely face Edinburgh or Ulster a week before the Champions Cup final, with the winners then facing Leinster away in the semi-finals.
Ulster’s bonus-point win away to Edinburgh means there could yet be a sting in the tail end to what has been a hitherto forgettable season. Ulster currently occupy that European Champions Cup play-off spot, but three more wins, beginning with their home game against the Ospreys this Friday, could yet see them overtake Edinburgh, which would mean direct qualification for the Champions Cup as well as an away quarter-final in the Pro14 play-offs, quite possibly against Munster in what would then be an all-Irish half of the draw.
At a push, Ulster could also be overtaken by Benetton and thus consigned to a place in next season’s Challenge Cup, a fate that now seems certain to befall Connacht.
Glasgow: Pl 18. Pts 70. Remaining fixtures – Friday v Connacht (home), Sat 21st v Ulster (away), Sat 28th v Edinburgh (away).
Despite suffering only their third league defeat of the season away to the Scarlets last Saturday, one more win in their remaining three games will be enough to ensure the Warriors of a home semi-final, which as things stand would be against the Scarlets or the Cheetahs.
Munster: Pl 19 Pts 63. Remaining fixtures – Friday v Cheetahs (away), Sat 28th v Ulster (home).
Munster face a huge game away to the Cheetahs on Friday. Defeat would leave them needing to beat Ulster at home in their final game to earn a home quarter-final. Victory on Friday would guarantee them one, which as things stand would be against Edinburgh, although it could be against Ulster. The winners would most likely face Leinster away in the semi-finals.
Cheetahs: Pl 19 Pts 57. Remaining fixtures – Friday v Munster (home), Sat 28th v Southern Kings (away).
A win over Munster would nail down a place in the play-offs, and coupled with a win over the Kings in their final game, and Munster losing to Ulster, could see them finish second and secure a home quarter-final. Were they not to overtake Munster, most probably the Cheetahs will be away to the Scarlets in the play-offs.
Cardiff: Pl 19 Pts 57. Remaining fixtures – Saturday v Kings (away), Sat 28th v Ospreys (home).
A win away to the Kings would ensure Cardiff of qualification for next season’s European Champions Cup, but they would need two bonus-point wins and for the Cheetahs to pick up nothing in their remaining games to reach the play-offs after last Saturday’s controversial defeat to the Cheetahs.
Ospreys: Pl 18 Pts 40. Remaining fixtures – Friday v Ulster (away), Sat 2st v Zebre (home), Sat 28th v Cardiff (away).
The Ospreys effectively need three wins to overtake Cardiff, whom they meet on the 21st and final round of fixtures, and thus secure automatic qualification for next season’s Champions Cup. One more win would nail down fifth place and with it a play-off to qualify for the Champions Cup which, currently, would be against Ulster.
Connacht: Pl 19 Pts 34. Remaining fixtures – Friday v Glasgow (away), Sat 28th v Leinster (home).
After last Saturday’s crushing 39-10 defeat to the Ospreys, Connacht would need to win their remaining two games and hope the Welsh region lose their remaining three matches to have any hope of overtaking them and reaching the Champions Cup play-off.
Zebre: Pl 18 Pts 22. Remaining fixtures – Saturday v Dragons (home), Sat 21st v Ospreys (home), Sat 28th v Benetton (away).
Michael Bradley’s side are marking time until the season’s end.
Leinster: Pl 19 Pts 69. Remaining fixtures – Saturday v Benetton (home), Sat 28th v Connacht (away).
Now assured of a place in the play-offs, a win over Benetton on Saturday would nail down a home semi-final (so earning a bye the weekend before the Champions Cup final in Bilbao) were the Scarlets not to beat Edinburgh away earlier the same day. Failing that, two wins would earn a home semi-final, which as things stand would be against Munster or Edinburgh.
Scarlets: Pl 19 Pts 65. Remaining fixtures – Saturday v Edinburgh (away), Sat 28th v Dragons (away).
Victory away to Edinburgh on Saturday would ensure the holders of a home quarter-final, which as things stand would be against the Cheetahs, with the winners of that almost certainly facing Glasgow away in the semi-finals. The Scarlets would need to win both their remaining games, with a bonus point or two, and hope that Leinster lose one of their remaining games, to earn top place and bypass that quarter-final with a home semi-final.
Edinburgh: Pl 19 Pts 59. Remaining fixtures – Saturday v Scarlets (home), Sat 28th v Glasgow (home).
Edinburgh occupy the final play-off place, and with it automatic qualification for next season’s Champions Cup, in Conference B. Two wins would ensure as much, but two defeats against the respective Conference leaders could also leave the door open for Ulster.
Ulster: Pl 18 Pts 51. Remaining fixtures – Friday v Ospreys (home), Sat 2st v Glasgow (home), Sat 28th v Munster (away).
Ulster currently occupy fourth place and with it Champions Cup play-off, most probably against the Ospreys, whom they meet in a huge game this Friday at the Kingspan Stadium. Were Edinburgh to lose either of their remaining games, three Ulster wins could conceivably propel them into third, and with it an away quarter-final, probably against Munster, and also automatic qualification for the Champions Cup. They could also be overtaken themselves by Benetton, and thus condemned to the Challenge Cup.
Benetton: Pl 19 Pts 50. Remaining fixtures – Saturday v Leinster (away), Sat 28th v Zebre (home).
The Italians still retain hope of earning a play-off for next season’s European Champions Cup, although if they don’t bear Leinster at the RDS this Saturday, would most probably need Ulster to lose all of their remaining three games and then beat Zebre to get there.
Dragons: Pl 19 Pts 18. Remaining fixtures – Saturday v Zebre (away), Sat 28th v Scarlets (home).
Bernard Jackman’s team have long since been out of contention.
Southern Kings: Pl 19 Pts 11. Remaining fixtures – Saturday v Cardiff (home), Saturday 28th v Cheetahs (home).
After securing just one win to date in their hurriedly arranged debut campaign, the Kings can presumably only improve.
* In the event of two (or more) sides finishing level, the team with the most wins will be ranked highest, and if they have the same number of wins, then they will be separate by points’ difference.