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Explained: How Ulster could qualify for the Champions Cup without a play-off against Ospreys

By Gareth Hanna

Ulster's regular Guinness PRO14 season is over. All that's left to (possibly) face is the European play-off against Ospreys.

But we can't even be certain at this stage whether or not that's going to happen. We're willing to say that it's highly likely Ulster WILL host a play-off on May 19 - and here's why we say so.

European Champions Cup qualification rules

There are 20 places in next season's Champions Cup. Six of those go to the Top 14, six to the Aviva Premiership and seven to the PRO14. How are the seven places divied out in Ulster's league? Well, simply, it's the three top finishers in Conference A and Conference B, while the two fourth-placed sides play off for the remaining spot.

That's complicated this season by the Cheetahs finishing third in Conference A, but it just means fourth-placed Cardiff have already qualified, leaving fifth-placed Ospreys to face Ulster in the play-offs.

What about the 20th Champions Cup place?

That's where it gets interesting. There is a list of criteria for who gets this space.

It's worked out like this:

i) Champions Cup winner, if not already qualified: Leinster / Racing 92 (both already qualified)

ii) Challenge Cup winner, if not already qualified: Cardiff Blues / Gloucester (Cardiff already qualified)

iii) Challenge Cup losing finalist, if not already qualified: Cardiff Blues / Gloucester (Cardiff already qualified)

iv) Play-off match between the losing Challenge Cup semi-finalists, if not already qualified: Section Paloise (Pau) and Newcastle (Newcastle already qualified)

v) Highest ranked non-qualified club by virtue of league position from the same league as the Champions Cup winner: Ulster / As-yet-unknown French club

So - what?

Well, as you can hopefully tell from above, Gloucester are the first club on the list not to have already officially qualified - even if, in essence, they have.

That's because they will either seal their place via the Aviva Premiership route or as a Challenge Cup finalist. Ulster need them to do it via the Premiership route, rather than stealing the 20th spot. In order to do that, they need to finish in the sixth-place they currently inhabit.

A win against Saracens on Saturday would cement a top six finish BUT it's fair to say that looks unlikely. That's because Gloucester will qualify whether they win or lose AND they have a Challenge Cup final to consider only six days after their league conclusion.

But, for talk's sake, let's assume they secure sixth. That would mean the 20th place is passed on down the list.

Pau would be the next club to snap it up as things stand. Again there are complications. They're currently eighth in the Top 14 with one round of fixtures to go. They're four points behind fifth-placed Lyon, two behind sixth-placed Castres and level on points with seventh-placed La Rochelle. Pau play fourth-place Toulon at the weekend and need a win as well as hoping to leapfrog two of the three teams above them. Lyon host top side Montpellier, Castres are at home to second-bottom Oyonnax and La Rochelle play third-bottom Stadt Francais. An upset is required to see off Castres or La Rochelle.

Again, for talk's sake, let's say Pau have got top six.

Well if both of those happen, Ulster would receive the 20th spot only if Leinster win the Champions Cup via the fifth criterium outlined by the Champions Cup qualification rules.

Ulster will qualify for the Champions Cup without the need for a play-off ONLY if....

1. Gloucester finish sixth in the Aviva Premiership.

2. Pau beat Toulon and finish in the top six of the Top 14.

3. Leinster win the Champions Cup.

For clarity: Ulster would pick up the 20th spot rather than Ospreys because they earned 62 PRO14 points to Ospreys' 44.

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