Top 14 final round is too close to call
May 2, 2014
Racing Metro's Juandre Kruger in action against Clermont's Sitiveni Sivivatu earlier this season © Getty Images
As the Top 14 enters its final round the sheer number of questions still to be answered will leave directors of rugby across France with sleepless nights ahead of Saturday's fixtures.
Play-offs, Europe and relegation are all still on the line, ensuring action at both ends of the league, while the added spice of a Champions Cup play-off for the seventh-placed side against their Premiership counterparts makes the mid-table battle more important than ever.
The pick of the fixtures comes in the form of second v fourth as Montpellier take on Racing Metro at Stade Yves du Manoir. With the Top 14 operating a three-stage play-off system, finishing second brings with it the benefit of a bye through to the semi-finals, so Racing will be desperate to overhaul Montpellier's two-point advantage to finish in the top two.
But as if things at the top weren't tight enough, Clermont could upset both clubs with a win over relegation-threatened Perpignan. True, they were poor against a rampant Saracens in last weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final, but the prospect of jumping into second place should see them lift their performance on Saturday.
Below the top two, the battles for home domestic quarter-finals and entry into the new Champions Cup are painfully tight. Just five points separate third to sixth, with Castres and Toulouse occupying the last automatic European qualification spots and both facing the prospect of playing their Top 14 quarter-finals away from home.
Breathing down their necks are Stade Francais, who sit seventh and level on points with Toulouse. Stade currently occupy the Champions Cup play-off spot, but an unlikely victory over table-topping Toulon could even see them leap into a quarter-final berth.
And while they go into the weekend top of the pile, even Toulon will be looking over their shoulders at the melee behind them. Although they will fancy their chances of at least finishing in the top two, they are only four points clear of third and face being dragged into the quarter-finals if Stade stage an upset.
Determined not to be outdone by their colleagues at the top of the league, the clubs still threatened with relegation have also made things as close as possible. Biarritz are relegated, that much is certain, but one of three teams could be joining them in the Pro D2 next season.
Bayonne, Oyonnax and Perpignan are locked on 50 points each and are all in with a chance of survival. In all honesty, things don't look good for Perpignan, who travel to Clermont to save their Top 14 skins, but the wounded hosts could be without injured stars Julien Bonnaire, Fritz Lee, Damien Chouly, Aurélien Rougerie and Lee Byrne.
Oyonnax take on mid-table Brive while Bayonne host Castres and the likelihood is a single point will be enough for both to ensure survival. If all three sides lose and the foot of the table remains as it is, Perpignan will go down. But through a complicated head-to-head system, if Perpignan and Bayonne are the only teams to finish level, then Perpignan would actually stay up thanks to a better points difference against their rivals.
Finally, while they may be down and out, relegated Biarritz could still play a part in shaping the table. If they roll over against eighth-placed Bordeaux, and Toulon obliterate Stade, then Bordeaux could sneak into the Champions Cup play-off spot. Almost every club still has something to play for, so expect a spectacular climax to this year's Top 14 regular season.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
They came to Murrayfield looking to put down a marker, but Scotland were sent home with their tails between their legs, writes Tristan Barclay
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland
"This team deserves to be recognised as the greatest of all time." Huw Richards looks at Gareth Edwards' final match for Wales