Ulster are still a week away from their crunch play-off determining final Magners League game, but today's clash between Newport-Gwent Dragons and Cardiff Blues (kick-off 4.05pm) will have more than a passing interest for Brian McLaughlin and his squad.
Though Ulster, currently in third place, are solely focused on their own situation, where a losing bonus point next week — when it is their turn to meet the Dragons at Rodney Parade — will be enough to secure a place in the top four, the outcome of tonight’s game could be of considerable significance.
It will also, of course, give McLaughlin and his coaching team a useful opportunity to have a fresh look at next week’s opponents ahead of their preparation for a game that Ulster will be going all out to win.
There is still a possibility that they could snatch a home semi-final by finishing the regulation league programme in second, though that will also hinge on currently second-placed Leinster and also possibly the Blues — purely based on them winning tonight — tripping up in their final games.
Tonight’s encounter is fourth placed Blues’ game in hand on their rivals and, should they win, they will have secured their place in the top four along with Munster — the only side guaranteed a home semi-final — and Leinster which will then leave Ulster one place and four points above the Ospreys, in fifth, as the two sides still seeking the last remaining place, with Ulster having the clear edge as they are still in control of their own destiny.
Should Dai Young’s men win tonight — which will also extinguish any lingering hopes the Scarlets might have on sneaking in on the action — then they will also be seeking a win from their last game, which happens to be at the Scarlets next Friday, as the chance of nailing down a home semi-final will also be available though Leinster tripping up at home to Glasgow Warriors does look rather remote.
Should the Blues lose at the Dragons without a bonus point then they will go into next Friday’s final round needing a regulation win at a then more motivated Scarlets and should the Blues finish level on points with the Ospreys, who will be gunning for a try bonus at Aironi, the Cardiff side will still go through on the basis of having notched up more wins.
Complicated? About the only thing that can be said with certainty is that if Ulster do finish fourth — though of course they’re not safe yet — they will be on their way to Thomond Park to face Munster.
What a semi-final showdown that would be.