With just two rounds left of the regular Zurich Premiership season, there is still everything to play for amongst the premiership clubs.
Bath may have led the table since 5th October, successfully managing their squad during the international release periods, but current champions London Wasps have not lost in the Zurich Premiership since 8th November and are posing a real threat to Bath's league position.
Like last season, the champions will be decided by a play-off final at Twickenham on Saturday 29th May. The club who finishes top of the table after 22 rounds (Saturday 8th May) will earn an automatic bye to the Zurich Premiership Final, whilst the second placed and third placed clubs will play-off for the other finalist position in the Zurich Premiership Semi-Final on Sunday 16th May at the home of the second placed club.
Bath are currently still hanging onto their top slot but are only one point above London Wasps. Bath's remaining fixtures are away to NEC Harlequins and at home to fourth placed Gloucester. London Wasps travel to Gloucester on 1st May and then are at home to sixth placed Leicester Tigers in round 22. Therefore it is still anybody's guess as to who will finish top and earn the automatic place in the Zurich Premiership Final.
Both clubs are guaranteed a place in next season's Heineken Cup by means of securing either the top or the second placed position - neither can drop any lower at this stage.
In addition to a semi-finalist position and a chance at the Championship, the third placed club are guaranteed a place in next season's Heineken Cup and so there is a battle between third placed Northampton Saints and fourth placed Gloucester to secure the third spot.
Northampton are away to Leeds Tykes and then home to Quins whilst Gloucester are at home to London Wasps and then away to Bath.
Further down the table, the excitement and prize on offer switches from the Premiership title to a place in next season's Heineken Cup. The introduction last season of the Zurich Wildcard tournament has ensured that once again, the mid-table clubs are still playing in meaningful matches.
As the table currently stands, the Zurich Wildcard would be played between Gloucester (Zurich Wildcard 1) and London Irish (Zurich Wildcard 4), and NEC Harlequins (Zurich Wildcard 2) and Leicester Tigers (Zurich Wildcard 3). The Wildcard is a one legged semi-final played at the home of the higher seed and then a final at Twickenham on the same day as the Zurich Premiership Final (Saturday 29th May, 3.30pm kick-off).
So who has already automatically qualified for next season's Heineken Cup?
Newcastle Falcons win on Saturday gives them an automatic place in the Heineken Cup and they join Bath and Wasps as clubs already certain of a place in Europe next season.
1. Zurich Premiership First: Either Bath, Wasps, Northampton or Gloucester
2. Zurich Premiership Second: Either Wasps, Bath, Northampton or Gloucester
3. Zurich Premiership Third: Either Northampton, Gloucester, Bath or Wasps
4. Parker Pen Challenge Cup Winners: Either NEC Harlequins (or Bath)
5. Zurich Wildcard Winner: TBC
6. Powergen Cup Winner: Newcastle Falcons
How does the Zurich Wildcard work?
The Zurich Wildcard was introduced to give clubs who had failed to qualify for Europe another final chance to secure a spot in the Heineken Cup and ensure that matches towards the end of the season are meaningful.
A club can only play in the Wildcard if they have not automatically qualified for Europe. As soon as a club automatically qualifies they must drop out of the Wildcard tournament and their opposition will take their place. So for example, should Quins win their Zurich Wildcard semi-final against Leicester but then win the Parker Pen Challenge Cup Final on Saturday 22nd May, then they must drop out of the Wildcard and Leicester would progress to the Wildcard Final as a 'lucky loser.'
What happens if a club qualifies by more than one means?
A club may only qualify for Europe in one way and they must take the higher of the two seeds. There are two possible scenarios. Wasps could win the Heineken Cup which takes priority over the six seeds above and all the other seeds move down accordingly. Therefore if Wasps win the Heineken Cup on 23rd May and have also finished second in the league then that seed is removed and all other seeds move up one place giving the club who finished fourth in the Zurich Premiership table an automatic place in Europe.
The Parker Pen Challenge Cup seed is only included and relevant if Quins win the tournament and if Bath win it then they will have qualified on two counts and must take the higher seed of finishing either first or second in the premiership.
What about the seventh seed ERC have announced?
ERC have confirmed that a seventh seed will be given to either England or France depending on who is more successful in this year's Heineken Cup. If Wasps win the Heineken Cup then England will have a seventh seed which would be awarded to Zurich Premiership fourth (if they haven't by then already qualified) or fifth, etc.
This could of course lead to the other 'lucky loser' situation as Gloucester (if they finish fourth) could play in the Wildcard semi-final but then as a result of Wasps winning the Heineken Cup qualify as fourth automatically and have to drop out of the Wildcard. If Wasps don't win the Heineken Cup then the seventh seed will be awarded to France so therefore it becomes irrelevant.
What about the Parker Pen Challenge Cup?
Should Bath win the Parker Pen Challenge Cup then this seed will no longer exist as a club can only qualify once. Should Quins win the Challenge Cup then they would have to drop out of the Wildcard. Should neither English club win the Parker Pen then the seed will no longer be relevant and it would mean that Premiership fourth (and if necessary fifth, etc.) would earn automatic qualification.
What are the timings for the play off matches?
Round 22 of the Zurich Premiership - all six matches are on Saturday 8th May with 3.00pm kick-offs
Zurich Wildcard Semi Finals - Saturday 15th May
Zurich Wildcard 1 Vs Zurich Wildcard 4 (at home of ZW1) - 5.05pm kick-off
Zurich Wildcard 2 Vs Zurich Wildcard 3 (at home of ZW2) - 7.15pm kick-off
Zurich Premiership Semi-Final - Sunday 16th May
Zurich Premiership 2 Vs Zurich Premiership 3 (at home of ZP2) - 3.00pm kick-off
Zurich Wildcard Final - Saturday 29th May, 3.30pm kick-off at Twickenham
Zurich Premiership Final - Saturday 29th May, 6.00pm kick-off at Twickenham
All play-off matches are live on Sky Sports, while hIghlights of the Zurich Wildcard Final and Zurich Premiership Final will be on the BBC.
During week commencing 22nd April Harlequins will launch an innovative, new Membership Scheme which will replace the existing Season Ticket Holder Programme. Further details of the scheme will be announced in due course.