Explained: How play-offs and European qualification work in the Pro 14 and what Ulster's chances are
Ulster Rugby hosts Ospreys this Friday evening in what is an enthralling tie for more than one reason.
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Not only are Jonno Gibbes' side searching for back-to-back Guinness Pro 14 victories for the first time since November, but the game could also be a dress-rehearsal for an end-of-season Champions Cup play-off.
That fact brings us neatly on to a discussion of how exactly the European and play-off qualification works in this the debut season of the newly-remodelled league.
We'll begin with the Pro 14 play-offs
The Pro 14, as you all (should) know, is split into two conferences, adventurously named Conference A and Conference B.
As opposed to the simple semi-finals and final of the now defunct Pro 12, this year there's an extra couple of places: six play-off spots in total.
Simply, the two second-placed teams host the third-placed side from the opposite conference in two quarter-final ties, aiming for a spot in the final four, where they will visit the two first-placed teams.
And what about Champions Cup qualification?
Of the 19 clubs that automatically qualify for next season's Champions Cup, seven come from the Pro 14. Reasonably, the top three in each conference go straight through and the fourth placed teams in each conference play off in a one-off match for the final spot. The fourth-placed team with more points gets home advantage.
Simples? Not necessarily.
There is a caveat. That's the fact that South African teams are not eligible for Champions Cup qualification, due to it being, you know, a European competition. And they're South African clubs. You understand.
So with the Toyota Chiefs currently sitting third in Conference A, that's good news for Cardiff Blues. Even a fourth place finish behind the Cheetahs, where the Welsh team currently sit, would be enough to see them safely into the Champions Cup.
And as long as the Cheetahs finish in the top four, it gives fifth placed Ospreys (or potentially Connacht) a spot in the Champions Cup play-off against Conference B's fourth-placed side.
So that is why Friday's clash could be a prelude to an end-of-season play-off.
Thank goodness Southern Kings have proved no such threat to confuse things any further.
The remaining sides, of course, bar the South Africans, go into the Challenge Cup.
What are Ulster's chances of gaining a Champions Cup spot?
Well Friday's night's bonus-point win over Edinburgh have given their hopes the shot in the arm they so richly needed. It keeps Ulster a solitary point ahead of Benetton in the race for a top four place.
Ulster have a game in hand on the Italians and third-placed Edinburgh which, of course, can only help.
What about at least a play-off spot?
Ulster face Ospreys and Glasgow at home before a final-day trip to Munster in their last three league games. Two home successes should be enough to secure at least a Champions Cup play-off spot. That's because Benetton travel to Conference B leaders Leinster on Saturday, with minimal returns expected (or hoped for, on Ulster's part). Benetton's final fixture is at home to Zebre so, if we assume a five point haul in that one, a lot will be determined by their trip to the RDS.
Could Ulster even overhaul Edinburgh into third?
Before Friday's win, this looked nigh-on impossible. Now it seems slightly less impossible.
Ulster are eight points adrift of the Scots with that game in hand. Edinburgh's final two games are at home but the visitors are Conference A leaders Glasgow and Conference B's second-placed side Scarlets. If those two do Ulster a couple of favours, two positive home results could even have Ulster in third by the time they go to Munster on the final weekend.
In short, you're cheering for Glasgow and Scarlets from now until the end of the normal campaign to see Ulster through to a Pro 14 play-off rather than a nervy Champions Cup qualifier.
Belfast Telegraph Digital