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Stakes are high for Irish sides in a thrilling finish to Guinness PRO14

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

It will take a couple of seasons to establish whether the South African expansion has been a success for the Guinness PRO14.

Late additions, the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, have certainly added an exotic touch and some bizarre, memorable storylines to the 2017/18 season. The Bloemfontein franchise have added to the rugby side of things but their arrival has certainly complicated the competition's format.

Increasing the number of teams from 12 to 14 meant that the table was divided into two conferences. The top three from each side qualify for the finals series, meaning an extra round of play-offs between the second and third-ranked teams to establish who visits the top seeds in the semi-finals.

This takes a leaf out of the French Top 14 'barrage' games, with the PRO14 opting for the far less interesting title of 'semi-final qualifier' for the games.

That is relatively straightforward, but throw in European qualification and the picture is muddied.

Seven teams from the tournament qualify for next season's Champions Cup but the two South African sides cannot play in the European competitions.

So, the top three European teams in each conference qualify automatically, with the fourth highest ranked European teams going into a play-off with the team with the highest points handed home advantage.

It means 11 of the 14 teams in the division have something to play for with just two full rounds of fixtures to go.

Three of the four Irish provinces are still fully in the hunt with Connacht not yet mathematically out of the running for the Champions Cup as they sit six points behind an Ospreys side who have a game in hand against a Zebre team with nothing to play for.

In Conference A, Munster have a chance to secure a home qualifier with victory over the Cheetahs tomorrow night while Connacht can keep their distant dreams of a European play-off alive by shocking leaders Glasgow Warriors in Scotland.

With five teams on 50 points or more, Conference B has been the more competitive of the two all season and Leinster can put themselves within touching distance of a semi-final place with a win over Benetton on Saturday, while Ulster are chasing a European spot against Ospreys tomorrow.

As it stands, Glasgow and Leinster will top the conferences and book home semi-finals.

Currently, Munster would host Edinburgh with Cheetahs travelling to play Scarlets but there is still scope for those positions to change.

The stakes are high this weekend as the provinces aim to secure their positions as much as possible.

With Connacht's fate almost sealed, Ulster find themselves in perhaps the most precarious spot as they currently occupy the Champions Cup play-off spot in Conference B.

If they remain there they would host the fifth-placed team from 'A', currently Ospreys, in a one-off game at Kingspan Stadium to keep their unbroken record of being in Europe's elite competition alive.

Those two teams meet tomorrow night and the presence of former Ulster coach Allen Clarke as the Welsh region's interim coach spices things up.

With Cheetahs third in Conference A, fourth-placed Cardiff Blues are in line for a return to the Champions Cup if they can hold Ospreys off.

They meet in Cardiff in the final round.

Ulster's bonus-point victory over Edinburgh last weekend, as well as their game in hand against Ospreys, offers them a shot at overtaking the Scots and earning a play-off spot and automatic qualification into the Champions Cup but they must be wary of Benetton who are just a point behind them.

In Glasgow, Ospreys and Munster, Jono Gibbes' side have no gimmes in their remaining games.

ULSTER: In a three-way dogfight in Conference B, with a place in the post-season still a possibility if they can overhaul Edinburgh but fourth place and a European play-off the main goal if they can hold off Benetton.

Remaining games: Ospreys (h), Glasgow (a), Munster (a)

MUNSTER: Look destined to finish second in Conference A behind Glasgow Warriors, meaning they'll qualify for the Champions Cup and host a home play-off qualifier against Edinburgh or Ulster with the Scots in the box-seat.

Remaining games: Cheetahs (a), Ulster (h)

CONNACHT: With the top two in their last two games, Kieran Keane (above) and his men need something of a miracle to qualify for the Champions Cup through the play-off after just six wins in 19 games.

Remaining games: Glasgow (a), Leinster (h)

LEINSTER: Top of Conference B and four points clear of their Champions Cup opponents Scarlets, they can put one foot in the last four with a win over Benetton this weekend.

Remaining games: Benetton (h), Connacht (a)

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