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Explained: PRO14 play-off chances after Ulster's win over Glasgow

Ulster 36 Glasgow 15

By Jonathan Bradley

After winning their third game in a row on Saturday, Ulster's play-off permutations are considerably clearer, if not quite yet crystal.

The lingering chase of Benetton has finally fallen away, Ulster now six points ahead of the impressively resilient Italians, and the very least the northern province can hope for is a home play-off against Ospreys for a spot in next season's Champions Cup.

There is still a chance of getting into the PRO14 round-robin too, which would in itself bring a place in Europe's top tier, should they win with a bonus point against Munster on Saturday and Edinburgh take nothing from their own derby clash with Glasgow.

Where the picture gets murkier is the potential that a Champions Cup play-off may not be necessary should Leinster win Europe's top prize in Bilbao next month, and all Challenge Cup semi-finalists finish in qualifying places through their league.

With Cardiff already secure, Newcastle and Gloucester occupying positions, the biggest doubt there seems to be Pau. Currently seventh in the Top 14, there are five teams battling for three remaining spots in the top six.

In short, over the next fortnight, Ulster fans will need to be supporting Glasgow and Pau, as well as their own side.

"I think this is the million-dollar question," said Operations Director Bryn Cunningham of whether he had been told that a Champions Cup play-off would be a necessity. "I don't think anybody knows."

"We've been trying to find out from left, right and centre. Our understanding is that if Pau were to get into the top six (along with Newcastle and Gloucester in England) then we would have no play-off, we'd be automatically through. We're pretty sure that's the case.

"If you look at the run in (Pau) have, they've two tough games, away to Montpellier and home to Toulon, so I think it's unlikely that, based on that, Pau would get in that top six. We'll have to have Ospreys here again."

That certainly seems the most likely scenario, although it was not so long ago that Ulster would have bitten off your hand for such an outcome come season's end.

Having lost to Edinburgh, Scarlets and Cardiff in three consecutive games in and around the Six Nations, it seemed more likely than not that Jono Gibbes men would soon slip to fifth in a seven team conference. Since then, and culminating in Saturday's bonus-point win over high-flying Glasgow, they have reeled off three wins in a row for a first time since the opening weeks of the season.

Even if they have found their form a week or two too late to regain their spot in an expanded PRO14 play-offs, Cunningham admitted to a sense of relief that they have recovered sufficiently to rescue hopes of Champions Cup qualification.

"I think a few weeks ago, if I was being brutally honest, being a realist rather than predicting something we didn't expect to happen, that's what the main goal was - to stay ahead of Treviso.

"Treviso are starting to play good rugby. Treviso are not the Treviso of a few years ago, they are a good side and when we looked at their run-in we knew that we'd have to get a few wins.

"We've managed to do that and I think that says a lot about a squad that has been low on confidence throughout the season when performances haven't been right up there, and the pressure has been on for the last three weeks, but fair play they have delivered."

While still faint, the PRO14 play-offs too are still on Cunningham's radar, even if a bonus-point win in Limerick on Saturday and help elsewhere seem somewhat unlikely.

"At least it's given us a chance, and that's the main thing," he said. "We're now looking forward to going down there, we've built on three good wins, the confidence is up.

"Hopefully Glasgow do us a favour as well, you never know what might happen.

"I think for us we'll just focus on the positives from Glasgow and take that into next week as well."

Such positives have been more plentiful in recent weeks than at any other time of the season despite off the field controversy reaching fever pitch over the same period.

And while there were isolated incidents of discontent from some sections of the Kingspan crowd, including some confiscated banners, there was little to dislike on the field of play.

A pack, which started without Ireland skipper Rory Best, lost Iain Henderson before kick-off after his wife gave birth, and then Jean Deysel to injury early on, still managed to make an impact with Sean Reidy and Nick Timoney both excellent.

Stuart McCloskey was the best back on show, but the contributions of young Johnny McPhillips and debutant Angus Curtis - who got on for the last eight minutes of the game - should not be overlooked either.

No matter whether such momentum continues to the end of the season, Cunningham stressed that the finish to this difficult campaign will not change impressions on how much is required to restore the side to a standing similar to their Irish rivals, who have been flourishing.

"We've a lot of work still to do," said Cunningham.

"If we do have a strong finish, that won't change what we do in terms of analysing what we have to do to put things right.

"May will be an opportunity for us to really focus on next season and what we're going to do in the offseason and pre-season to make sure that we're in really good shape to build on the good things and the talent coming through."

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