Christmas may be on the horizon but there’s no rest for the stars of the Magners League as the race for the Play-Offs begins to really gather pace.
The second season of Play-Off rugby is already proving even more competitive than before, with the vast majority of teams still holding high hopes of a top-four finish come early May.
And with all 12 sides involved in action in the two days either side of both Christmas and New Year, we could soon have a far better idea of who’ll be challenging for top honours at the end of the season.
But before we look forward, let’s take a look back at what’s been happening so far this term. Here’s a quick recap of the Play-Off zone ins and outs and facts and figures ahead of the festive fixtures.
~ A total of eight of the 12 teams have featured in the Play-Off places so far this season. They are…
Munster, Scarlets, Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Ulster, Edinburgh, Benetton Treviso and Connacht.
~ Current league leaders Munster have not been lower than second this season. They’ve led the standings for all bar one of the 10 rounds so far.
~ Connacht are the other side to have topped the table this term. Eric Elwood’s men led the way after the first round of action thanks to a 40-point hammering of the Dragons in Galway.
~ After Munster, the Scarlets, Blues and Ulster have spent the largest amount of time in the top four. All three sides have held a Play-Off place for eight of the 10 rounds so far, with the Scarlets entering the fray in Round 3, the Blues outside the top four after weeks two and three and Ulster lower than fourth after Rounds 1 and 10.
~ Connacht are the only other side to have spent more than a week in the Play-Off zone. Last year’s bottom-placed side were top after Round 1, third after Round 2 and fourth after Round 3.
~ The Scarlets, Blues and Ulster have all been as high as second at some stage this term. The Scarlets have been Munster’s closest challengers for six of the nine rounds since Connacht were knocked off top spot, while Ulster have occupied second spot twice and the Blues have been in that position once.
The Scarlets have been Munster's closest challengers
~ The Scarlets haven’t been out of the Play-Off zone since Round 2, while the Blues have been an ever-present in the top four since Round 4. Ulster have only been outside the Play-Offs on three occasions – after the conclusion of Round 1 despite their win over the Ospreys; when Edinburgh jumped above them after the Scots and Italians played their Round 8 fixtures a fortnight before the Irish and Welsh sides; and as things stand currently with the weather ensuring Ulster have played a game less than the sides currently occupying the top four places.
~ Connacht experienced the biggest fall between Rounds 1 and 10, slipping from first to eleventh, with the Scarlets the biggest climbers having jumped from ninth to second.
~ Reigning champions the Ospreys currently occupy the last of the Play-Off spots but they’ve only been in the top four on one other occasion this season. That was back in Round 2 after a maximum-point win over Treviso followed a losing bonus-point at Ulster.
~ Treviso were the only one of the 12 teams to have moved up or down the table after every single round of action prior to Round 10 when their match at Glasgow was postponed due to the adverse weather conditions. The Italian newcomers have been fourth, ninth, sixth, seventh, sixth, eighth, sixth, eighth and ninth having played nine games in their inaugural season in the Magners League.
~Leinster led the way for most of last season but they are yet to taste a top-four spot this time around. Last May’s beaten Grand Finalists currently sit sixth in the standings, with their highest position so far this year being the fifth place they held after the second, seventh and eighth rounds of action.
~ Glasgow Warriors were a big part of the Play-Off picture during the 2009/10 season, eventually finishing third and securing a Play-Off semi-final trip to Swansea. But, like Leinster, that success hasn’t transferred into this term, with the Warriors yet to break into the top four having been no higher than eighth expect for after the first round of fixtures when they were up in fifth.