The race is on, the pace is quickening and there are now only 100 days to go to the inaugural Magners League grand final on Saturday, May 29.
And while everyone is looking up, and admiring, the current leaders Glasgow Warriors, it would be a foolish man who wrote off almost anyone in the chasing pack from making the play-offs and going on to compete for the ultimate prize in the Magners League grand final.
There is certainly a bit of apprehension in air at the home of the reigning Magners League champions Munster, who last week escaped to Lanzarote to prepare for the next phase in their push for a place in the final four of the regular league season.
It was at this very stage last year that Tony McGahan’s squad made their push for the title, picking up 14 of a maximum 15 points while their international players were on RBS 6 Nations duty, and the Australian coach is hoping for another major push over the next month.
He has seen Munster meander between tenth and second positions to date this season in their defence of the title they won by a massive eight-point margin last year. They are currently lying in fifth place and poised to move back into the play-off zone.
McGahan said: “It was a great idea to introduce the play-off system and grand final into the Magners League and there has definitely been an increase in intensity and standard this season.
“It is much harder to win on the road because every team is very strong at home, we discovered that on the opening day of the season at Glasgow Warriors and all five of our defeats to date have come away from home.
“The Scottish sides have really developed in recent seasons and become far more competitive and consistent. The Warriors are in a great position at the moment and should kick on from where they are.
“It has been a tough league season so far and it is only going to get harder. The third phase of the campaign, during the RBS 6 Nations, is very important and one in which we made good ground last season.
“Everything is so tight, with only eight points covering the top eight teams, and everyone is looking to knock their rivals out of the play-off zone. We all want a top four finish and the new system means that every team will have something to play for right up to the end of the regular league season.
“Those final four rounds are going to be incredibly intense and cut throat. It is going to be a battle to the death and our eyes are firmly fixed on a top two finish in order to secure a home semi-final.
“We put a lot of store on winning the Magners League title last year because we knew it would be a real test of the strength of our overall squad. The same will be true this season, but we then have the added spice of possibly competing in a knock-out section.
“We’re still involved in the Heineken Cup, and that tournament is pretty special to the Munster fans and players, but the Magners League crown is also very important to us.
“The pressure is mounting and, with only 100 days left to go before the silverware gets handed out, the clock is ticking.”
With only the top four teams at the end of the regular league season progressing through to the semi-finals, the battle lines are now well and truly drawn with every point vital.
And because home advantage in both the play-offs and grand final will go to the top ranked teams, there is massive incentive for sides to finish their regular campaigns strongly to try to grab pole position.
Director of Celtic Rugby David Jordan believes the new initiative is already having a major impact on the league and expects more big twists and turns before the final round of games on May 7 to 9.
“The Magners League grand final is all set to become a major showpiece occasion for the tournament. Every team craves the chance of appearing in the first grand final,” said Jordan.
“But to do so they must ensure a top four finish to compete in the play-off stage of the competition. We are now approaching the business end of the season, when every point will count.
“The table is tightly bunched at the moment with no one team dominating, and with seven full rounds still left to play there are plenty of points still on offer.”
If the play-offs were to happen at the present moment, the semi-finalists would be: 1st v 4th – Glasgow Warriors v Leinster and 2nd v 3rd – Ospreys v Edinburgh.
The next round of Magners League games takes place this weekend – Friday night sees Glasgow Warriors take on the Cardiff Blues, Munster host Edinburgh and Ulster entertain the Newport Gwent Dragons. On Saturday, Leinster welcome the Scarlets and the round concludes on Sunday evening with the Ospreys facing Connacht.