Two teams are clear of the chasing pack, another eight are chasing four play-off places, while four are fighting for relegation zone escape velocity…
With the Champions and Challenge Cup competitions now down to their final eight teams, focus switches – for two brief weeks – back to domestic rugby, where things are not yet quite so clear.
In France, five rounds of the regular Top 14 season remain. Champions Cup semi-finalists Toulouse and La Rochelle are as close to domestic play-off certainties as maths will allow at this stage. They are both even within touching distance of a bye to the semi-finals in San Sebastian.
Accepting that Toulouse and La Rochelle have their post-season berths sewn-up, it’s probably fair to say that the next eight, from Stade Francais to Clermont, have decreasingly realistic shots at the four remaining open play-off places.
Brive, meanwhile, have one foot stuck in the ProD2 mud, with Perpignan, Pau and Castres all fighting to avoid the relegation singularity.
Here, in league order after 21 rounds of the competition, a closer look at each team’s run-in as we enter the closing sprint of the Top 14’s regular season.
1 Toulouse – 67 points
Remaining fixtures: Lyon (h), Stade Francais (a), Bordeaux (h), Perpignan (a), Brive (h)
Unlike last season, Toulouse were in a position to rest their returning Six Nations internationals for a week – for the one-off Top 14 derby against Castres – before the return of the Champions Cup.
With a domestic play-off spot already all-but assured – and a bye to the semi-finals theirs for the taking, even with matches against fourth, fifth and sixth in their immediate future – expect Ugo Mola to give key players some time off in the lead-up to Mission Improbable: Leinster at the Aviva at the end of April.
2 La Rochelle – 61
Remaining fixtures: Bayonne (h), Clermont (h), Toulon (a), Montpellier (a), Stade Francais (h)
A ‘home’ Champions Cup semi-final already assured, Ronan O’Gara’s La Rochelle are within touching distance of the last four in the Top 14 as well.
And the ease with which they cast Saracens aside on Sunday, eight days after their hard-fought win over Gloucester in the Champions Cup, doesn’t so much hint as shout that the Rochelais have unfinished trophy business once again this season.
3 Stade Francais – 56
Remaining fixtures: Brive (a), Toulouse (h), Clermont (a), Lyon (h), La Rochelle (a)
Three defeats in their last three outings in all competitions – including two at home – have stalled Stade Francais’ season somewhat.
Gonzalo Quesada, in his final weeks in charge at Stade Jean Bouin, will hope the week’s hiatus after their Challenge Cup round-of-16 loss against Lyon is the tonic his squad needs for the remaining five matches of the regular season. Brive away kicks it all off – on paper the easiest of Stade’s remaining matches. But it’s a must-win, and it probably won’t be that simple.
4 Lyon – 55
Remaining fixtures: Toulouse (a), Bordeaux (a), Perpignan (h), Stade Francais (a), Bayonne (h)
At this stage of the season, you really wouldn’t want to be Lyon, who have won just one of their last four – the Challenge Cup round-of-16 game against Stade Francais.
Between now and the end of the season, all-but one of Lyon’s opponents are in the play-off race, while the odd side out is fighting to avoid relegation. But Xavier Garbjosa’s side have it in them to finish comfortably in the top six, even with three of their five remaining matches on the road.
5 Bordeaux – 53
Remaining fixtures: Racing 92 (a), Lyon (h), Toulouse (a), Pau (h), Toulon (a)
Like Lyon, Bordeaux – a side in an inter-regnum period as they await Yannick Bru’s arrival in July following the departure earlier in the season of Christophe Urios – face a tough end of season fixture list.
Also like Lyon, a play-off place in the hand is worth two in the maths – but Laurent Marti’s temporary coaching staff will be looking nervously over their shoulders at how sides below them – perhaps all the way down to Clermont – are going.
6 Toulon – 52
Remaining fixtures: Perpignan (h), Castres (a), La Rochelle (h), Racing 92 (a), Bordeaux (h)
Challenge Cup semi-finalists Toulon have won nine of their last 10, and have a beach-head in the Top 14 play-offs. They’ll be confident about winning their three domestic home matches, no matter the opponents, which may be just about enough to ensure a top six finish.
They could go a long way towards making sure of the play-offs before they meet Benetton Treviso in the last four of the Challenge Cup, as both their Top 14 matches before the end of the month are against lower-table opposition. Toulon need a trophy after eight empty years, so they’ll push on both fronts.
7 Racing 92 – 51
Remaining fixtures: Bordeaux (h), Perpignan (a), Bayonne (h), Toulon (h), Clermont (a)
Forget that South Africa Challenge Cup trip. That really wasn’t a match, a competition even, that interested Racing.
That Top 14 derby win at Stade Francais’ Jean-Bouin ground three weeks ago may be the most important of an inconsistent season. It has given them a scarcely deserved shot at the top six and a 13th play-off run in a row. They have five matches to make it work.
8 Bayonne – 50
Remaining fixtures: La Rochelle (a), Montpellier (h), Racing 92 (a), Clermont (h), Lyon (a)
Not since Racing 92’s first season back in the Top 14 in 2008/09 has a newly promoted side made the end-of-season play-offs.
Bayonne’s first ‘home’ defeat of the season – against Pau in the last round of the Top 14 on March 25, a match relocated to San Sebastian in northern Spain – hurt in more ways than one, not least because it saw them drop out of the top six. It means they have to win three of their last five to have a shot at mirroring Racing’s feat.
9 Montpellier – 48
Remaining fixtures: Castres (h), Bayonne (a), Brive (h), La Rochelle (h), Pau (a)
The defending champions may be ninth in the table after a difficult season with a Brennus-sized target on their backs. But, of the eight sides chasing the four achievable play-off places, they have arguably the most straightforward run-in, for a given Top 14 value of ‘straightforward’.
Even their match against La Rochelle is the week before the Champions Cup final – which could, if O’Gara’s side are heading to Dublin, work in Montpellier’s favour. Losing hooker Brandon Paenga-Amosa to injury at this crucial stage, however, won’t help Montpellier’s cause.
10 Clermont – 45
Remaining fixtures: Pau (a), La Rochelle (a), Stade Francais (h), Bayonne (a), Racing 92 (h)
Three away matches in the final five, and home matches against play-off chasing Stade Francais and Racing 92 aren’t exactly favourable for a side that can’t buy a point on the road at any price and can’t afford any slip-ups as they chase an unlikely but still-possible play-off place.
In truth, it’s pretty much win at Pau or bust for Christophe Urios’s side this season, domestically. Do that, and they still have a reason to believe.
11 Castres – 40
Remaining fixtures: Montpellier (a), Toulon (h), Pau (a), Brive (a), Perpignan (h)
A rerun of last season’s final at the home ground of a side still smarting from a Champions Cup slight at Sandy Park kicks off the last phase of Castres’ survival challenge at the end of a season that has similar hallmarks to their dismal 2014/15 campaign.
That 2014/15 campaign cost then-head coaches David Darricarrere and Serge Milhas their jobs. This one has already lost Pierre-Henry Broncan his. New manager Jeremy Davidson’s only order of business until the end of this campaign is to keep his squad’s heads above relegation water.
12 Pau – 38
Remaining fixtures: Clermont (h), Brive (a), Castres (h), Bordeaux (a), Montpellier (h)
It’s not hard to state how important Pau’s win over Bayonne the other side of the Champions and Challenge Cup window was. Even now, their future could be sorted after Castres, or it could go all the way to the wire.
Either way, the maths now appears relatively simple. Win three of their last five – the fixture list is in their favour there, with three games at Stade du Hameau – and live to fight another season in the Top 14. A couple of nerve-calming bonus points on top wouldn’t go amiss, either.
13 Perpignan – 35
Remaining fixtures: Toulon (a), Racing 92 (h), Lyon (a), Toulouse (h), Castres (a)
Perpignan became the first Top 14 side to survive trial by relegation play-off since it was introduced in 2018.
You can’t necessarily write them off: Perpignan are as ferociously dogged as they always were, especially with something to fight for, and – on their day – they’re capable of some sublime, reputation-shredding rugby. But that run-in, with three of five matches on the road, and four of their remaining Top 14 games against top-seven sides is very much against them.
14 Brive – 26
Remaining fixtures: Stade Francais (h), Pau (h), Montpellier (a), Castres (h), Toulouse (a)
It’s on the impossible side of hard to see Top 14 survival in Brive’s immediate future, despite Welsh star Ross Moriarty’s late-season arrival.
They’re nine points adrift of 13th-placed Perpignan, and 13 from escaping the relegation singularity, with matches against two of the top four, both last season’s finalists, and 12th-placed Pau on their programme. It’s not done yet, but – even if they’re not talking about it publicly, the club are planning for a season in the ProD2 and an immediate return to the top flight.