Pro14: Play-off hopes and 'Brexit' worries as season reaches climax
It's a funny thing, a sports league.
Your team plays 18 games over eight months in far-flung venues from Galway to Treviso, and from Edinburgh to Port Elizabeth, and in the end it comes down to three games in Wales.
At least it does for Scarlets fans as the Pro14 reaches a compelling climax in April.
Three games between success and failure. Three games to redeem an indifferent season. Three games to provide a fitting farewell to a beloved coaching team.
The same is true for Cardiff Blues, except two of their games are in Ireland and there are no plans for the coaches to depart.
Oh, and there's a side stake of European qualification to add spice to the mix. Suddenly this is a league worth watching.
What's at stake
Six teams play off for the title; the top three sides in each of the two Conferences.
The group winners have a bye to the semi-finals, where they are guaranteed home advantage. Before that come two quarter-finals; the second team in Conference A hosts the third in Conference B in QF1; the second team in Conference B hosts the third team in Conference A in QF2.
From there, the winners of QF1 visit the Conference B winners, and the winners of QF2 visit the Conference A winners.
The final is at Celtic Park in Glasgow on 25 May.
Sorry to mention the "E" word, but three teams from each Conference qualify automatically for the European Champions Cup, though the two South African teams are not eligible.
The teams finishing fourth in each of the Conferences will play-off for the seventh qualification spot.
There is a remote possibility of an eighth place for a Pro14 team if a team from the league wins the 2018-19 Champions Cup.
Munster and reigning champions Leinster are still in this season's tournament.
How they stand (top five)
At their routine media conferences, players and coaches of Scarlets and Blues were talking play-offs and automatic European qualification.
But the league tables tell a stark story; Welsh regional rugby is in danger of a Champions Cup Brexit with no team in an automatic qualifying spot.
In Conference A, the Blues are in a dogfight with Connacht - with their meeting on 13 April a potential decider.
Ospreys are eight points from a play-off place, but could have a major impact on the Blues' chances when they meet on the final day of the regular season.
In Conference B, Scarlets - Pro12 champions two seasons ago - are fifth, five points behind third-placed Benetton Rugby and two adrift of Edinburgh, who are fourth.
Benetton have a tough run-in, including games against Leinster and Munster.
So it seems likely to come down to an arm wrestle between Scarlets and Edinburgh, who meet in Llanelli on Saturday.
Remaining fixtures: 6 April: Edinburgh (H); 13 April: Zebre (H); 27 April: Dragons (Principality Stadium)
A heavy defeat by Cardiff Blues in their last outing leaves outgoing coach Wayne Pivac's team with work to do as they go into their final three matches, but the crunch comes at the start at home to Edinburgh.
The New Zealander believes the Scarlets' season will hinge on Saturday's clash.
He said: "We're looking for three wins and hoping the other results go our way, so we get an opportunity to get something close to the top side out on the field.
"We've got one or two not too far away now, who are big name players, and they can make a difference as well.
"It's a cliche, but it's one game at a time starting with Edinburgh. And for the team that comes out on the wrong side of the result, the season is over."
Player view: Ken Owens
"We still have something to play for this season. It has been a frustrating year, very stop start and there are a number of reasons for that.
"We have learned a lot of lessons and done some soul searching and it's cup final rugby now. Every game in Wales.
"There are no excuses. It is about preparing well and delivering acceptable performances. We have set a standard over the past two or three years and not being in the play-offs is unacceptable.
"It's massive for us as a region, not only to give Wayne and the coaches a send-off but to be in the play-offs."
Remaining fixtures: 5 April: Munster (A); 13 April: Connacht (A); 27 April: Ospreys (Principality Stadium)
In a season where Welsh regions have generally disappointed, Cardiff Blues can legitimately claim to have shown an improvement.
It is a fact not wasted on coach John Mulvihill in his first year in charge at the Arms Park.
"At the moment, we're the best team in Wales and performing the best this season," he said.
But Munster - fresh from a Champions Cup quarter final win and with home advantage - are about as tough as it gets in the Pro14.
"We've just got to keep playing the way we play," added Mulvihill.
"They are a really good, experienced European team who have had success at the highest level. They had success last week, they're still live in two competitions and their depth is strong but we're going to turn up and play and put them under pressure.
"If I was Munster coach, I'd want to play at Thormond Park on a nice soggy old field, but they're playing us in Cork on a plastic pitch so let's hope that's a good omen for us.
"If we win two out of the next three games, we'll probably make it, if we win three we'll definitely get there so ... taking all the calculations out of it we just need to go and win every game and that's what we're focused on now."
Player view: Kristian Dacey
"We've got to be confident. We've had some big results in our last few games and that's what we've said as a group.
"Everything is in our hands. We've got Munster this week, we've got Connacht to come so it's all exciting and we're full of confidence.
"If we beat Munster, it puts us in a great place to go to Connacht the following week and that could be a winner takes all then. But it's about getting the result we need in Munster and we'll look at the next game after that."
The Pro14 is often depicted as the sleeping underdog to the French and English pitbulls. But there's plenty to keep fans on the edge of their seats in the next 20-odd days.
Welsh trials and tribulations aside, the Irish dominance and the ever-increasing power of the Scottish regions looks like dictating the outcomes in the two conferences, and it's hard to see past the European powerhouses of Leinster and Munster for the title - though home advantage in the play-offs counts for a lot.
And there can't be a rugby fan with a soul out there who doesn't secretly hope Benetton hold on.
If the aim of including Italian sides was to spread the rugby message, then a team from Treviso in the play-offs would be mission accomplished.
Not sure that's how they'd see it in Cardiff and Llanelli though.
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