The Top 14 season is close to reaching its 2013/14 end-game and there is still much to play for
What a day we have in store this Saturday in the Top 14. It’s the last day of the regular season yet after 25 rounds of competition only two clubs have nothing to play for. Biarritz are already relegated to Pro2 and Brive are nestled in the cosy confines of mid-table, neither in danger of the drop nor in with a faint hope of finishing seventh and qualifying for next month’s European Champions Cup play-off place against one of their English rivals
The relegation permutations were covered in last week’s column and while nothing has obviously changed in that regard, it will be intriguing to see how Clermont react to Saturday’s  Heineken Cup humiliation when they host Perpignan. Twelve months ago the Auvergne club lost to Toulon in the Heineken Cup final and a week later slumped to a spiritless defeat against Castres in the Top 14 semi-final.
The fact Clermont are at home is crucial. Right now they are in need of some TLC and their raucous supporters will be there in numbers to help lick their wounds against relegation-threatened Perpignan. Clermont must win against the Catalans if they’re to stand any chance of qualifying automatically for the semi-final of the Top 14.
As it stands, Toulon are top of the table on 73 points, then Montpellier on 71 and Clermont and Racing Metro on 69. Assuming Jonny Wilkinson’s side don’t slip up at home to Stade Francais (though the match is actually being played along the Cote d’Azur in Nice), they’ll finish the regular season as champions. Montpellier have a difficult match at home to Racing Metro, who have been the form team in the second half of the season.
The Parisians have lost just twice in the league since the start of December and there’s a pragmatism now to their game that has echoes of Toulon. They have the best defence in the Top 14 – having conceded 404 points in 25 matches – and while they don’t run in tries from all four corners, they have the boot of Johnny Sexton on which to rely. Quite possibly Racing are timing their run to perfection and could emulate Castres’ achievement last season in going all the way.
But if one was to go with Top 14 tradition and assume the home sides win on Saturday, then Toulon and Montpellier would go through to the semi-finals on the weekend of May 16/17. Clermont would have a home tie in their Barrage on May 9/10 against the team that finishes sixth. That could be any one of Toulouse, Castres, Stade Francais or Racing, depending on how other results pan out. Toulouse are currently sixth (so slated to face the side finishing third) but they host struggling Grenoble on Saturday and should finish with a comfortable win. Castres also face one of the relegation threatened sides in Bayonne, but a trip to Basque country could be tricky for the defending champions.
Stade Francais are seventh and, given that they play Toulon, unlikely to finish in sixth so they are in line to face off against one of the English clubs in the European play-off match. But the Parisians could yet be edged out of that encounter by eighth-place Bordeaux Begles, who entertain Biarritz.
Now pay attention because this is where it gets very complicated: Bordeaux trail Stade Francais by five points with an inferior points difference of 13. Yet if Bordeaux secure a bonus point win against Biarritz and also win by more than 14 points – and Stade Francais lose to Toulon without a bonus defensive point – then they will finish seventh and Stade will drop to eighth.
The drama unfolds on Saturday afternoon with all matches kicking-off at 1.45pm BST and agony and ecstasy ensuing in the 80 minutes to follow.
Final top six if home sides all win on Saturday (but with Racing & Castres collecting a bonus defensive point)
Clermont v Castres
Racing v Toulouse