The Magners League is all set to return to action following a weekend of European excursions, with the second Grand Final now less than 50 days away.
Time has flown by since the Ospreys claimed inaugural Grand Final glory with victory over Leinster in Dublin last spring, so much so that we’re now just three rounds away from the end of a fascinating regular season.
Incredibly, half of our 12 sides still harbour realistic hopes of a Play-Off spot, while a seventh could sneak into the equation if everything goes their way.
Munster may have maintained their 12-point lead at the top of the table with their nail-biting win over Leinster a fortnight ago but it was all change in the three other Play-Off places as Ulster climbed up to second, the Ospreys jumped to third and Leinster slipped to fourth.
Cardiff Blues moved to within four points of fourth place having played a game less than the sides above them, while fellow Welsh regions the Scarlets and the Dragons could still mathematically make the Play-Offs.
And with five of the top seven sides facing each other in Round 20 this weekend, the table could soon take on another very different look.
Of the current top four, only Leinster are at home this time around as they take on high-flying Ulster who go in search of a seventh straight Magners League win.
Munster travel to a Scarlets side desperate for a victory of any sorts to keep their Play-Off hopes alive, while the Ospreys take part in a Welsh derby against the Dragons at Rodney Parade.
Leaders Munster travel to the Scarlets on Saturday
And it’s not just at the top end of the table where we’re likely to see some massive battles this week.
Having propped up the Magners League standings for the past three seasons, Connacht are shooting for a mid-table finish that would satisfy director of rugby Eric Elwood’s call for all-round improvement and increased consistency. The Galway-based province host the Blues this weekend, with last season’s result reminding the Welsh capital outfit that a trip to the Sportsground is no easy task.
Pride will also come very much into play with Benetton Treviso hosting Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh entertaining Aironi. The Scottish teams are just above their Italian counterparts in the table at present, but Treviso are capable of overtaking them both if results go their way this weekend and over the final few rounds.
And with so much still to play for, it’s a great way for the Magners League to take centre stage once more after three of our sides were involved in European action last Saturday and Sunday.
Leinster and Munster marched on mercilessly in the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cup respectively, while Ulster led at halftime before falling to a narrow defeat at Northampton Saints.
At least one European trophy has been won by a Magners League team over the past three years, with Munster and then Leinster lifting the Heineken Cup in 2008 and 2009 before the Blues claimed Amlin glory with victory over Toulon in 2010. And with both our remaining teams enjoying home advantage for their respective semi-final clashes, we could we be celebrating an historic European double in five weeks time.
But for now, Europe can take a back seat as all eyes return to the push for the Play-Offs. Here’s how things stand ahead of the weekend.
– Seven teams remain in within a chance of a top-four spot.
– Leaders Munster know that two more match points in their final three games would guarantee them top spot and a home semi-final.
– One more win would see Tony McGahan’s men surpass the record for Magners League victories in a single season set by the Scarlets and the Ospreys in 2003/04 and 2004/05 respectively.
– Even if Munster do claim the two points they need to secure a home semi, the battle for the other home tie in the last four looks set to go right to the wire.
– Three points separate Ulster in second and Leinster in fourth but those two teams meet in Dublin this week – a match up that means either of those two sides, or reigning champions the Ospreys, could hold second spot by Sunday night.
– The seventh-placed Dragons can still make mathematically make the Play-Offs but they have to win all four of their remaining fixtures and pick up bonus points along the way to give themselves any hope of a semi-final place.
– The fact that both the Blues and Dragons have a game in hand is making things particularly interesting, especially as far as the Blues are concerned. A bonus-point win at Connacht on Friday could see them climb as high as third by the end of night.