Explained: Five key permutations as Ulster look to secure PRO14 play-off place and even home advantage
With just two games left in the regular Guinness PRO14 season, it's all to play for as Ulster's play-off hopes hang in the balance.
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Dan McFarland's men travel to Edinburgh on Friday evening and conclude their campaign with a home game against reigning champions Leinster.
Ulster currently sit second in Conference B but are just two points ahead of Benetton and three clear of Friday's opponents Edinburgh.
So what exactly do Ulster need to bag a play-off place and, even better, get home advantage? Here are five of the key permutations:
1. Ulster will confirm a play-off place with a win in Edinburgh
A win over Edinburgh on Friday will be enough to rubber-stamp a spot in the 'quarter-final' against second place in Conference A as it will take Ulster at least six points clear of their opponents.
2. Ulster could even confirm second place on Friday
A win over Edinburgh would be enough for Ulster to secure second if Munster managed to win in Italy on the same evening AND make sure Benetton take no more than a point.
But if Benetton picked up two losing bonus points this weekend, they could still leapfrog Ulster on the final weekend if the province are denied both a bonus point in Edinburgh and a point by Leinster while Benetton get a maximum return from their trip to Zebre.
3. Defeat on Friday would leave Ulster likely needing something against Leinster
If Ulster were to lose at Murrayfield, Edinburgh would definitely leapfrog the province in the table. That's because the best case scenario would be both teams ending the evening on the same number points by Ulster taking three points less from the game through losing bonus point(s). Even then, with both sides on either 55 or 56 points, Edinburgh would be ahead on points difference as both teams would have 11 wins.
That's significant because, given the form of Benetton, it's fair to assume they might beat lowly Zebre, who have lost 16 of their 19 PRO14 fixtures so far. That means Benetton will reach at least 56 points before we add on any potential bonus points. And if level with Ulster, they would also go ahead on points difference. Therefore, a very minimum of a point in the final game would be required for Ulster to get back into a play-off place.
4. One losing bonus point in Edinburgh can only help Ulster in strict circumstances
The only real scenario in which a losing bonus point this weekend could help Ulster finish ahead of Edinburgh would be if both teams are beaten on the final weekend (to Leinster and Glasgow respectively) but Ulster pick up a losing bonus point while Edinburgh do not. In that case, Ulster's two bonus points would sneak the province ahead of Edinburgh in the final table (assuming the Scots have not got a winning bonus point against Ulster). The same applies if Ulster get two losing bonus points at Murrayfield.
It could also help Ulster finish above Benetton, but only if the Italians pick up exactly one point more than Ulster over the course of the last two games, for example by getting two losing bonus points against Munster and then matching Ulster's points in the final weekend. Similar applies should Ulster gain two points on in Edinburgh, except Benetton would have to pick up exactly two more points than Ulster over the last two fixtures.
5. One win could be enough to seal second place
Two wins will be enough to finish second barring two bonus-point victories for Benetton while Ulster don't bring home any extra points. Could one win be enough?
It could be, although if it came against Leinster, it would require Glasgow to deny Edinburgh a win. Whichever game it arrived in, Benetton would have to slip up in their final two games at home to Munster and away to Zebre. And it might well require topping up with a bonus point or two along the way.
Belfast Telegraph Digital