IT’S back to the last round of the regular Super Rugby season for the five New Zealand franchises after the June international break, with three of their five teams fighting for the most favourable draw for next weekend’s playoffs.
The Crusaders top the overall table with 14 wins out of 14 but lose the big one against the Hurricanes in Wellington Saturday and that home advantage will cost them if they go all the way to the final and the Lions beat the Sharks away.
The Hurricanes beat the Queensland Reds 40-17 under the roof in Dunedin Friday but that has not altered their overall position of seventh and will have to wait for Saturday to know who they will met in the quarter-finals.
The Chiefs, playing probably their last game at home this season, have rested All Blacks Sam Cane and Anton Lienert-Brown from the side to play the Brumbies and must beat the Australian side and hope for the Crusaders to beat the Hurricanes if they want to avoid going to South Africa to play the Stormers and instead play the Brumbies again in the quarter-finals.
In their away game against the Stormers on April 8, the Chiefs went down 26-34, and thus may not be excited about having to make another long trip there.
The Blues, the last and fifth-placed in the NZ conference, play the Sunwolves for the first time in Japan and coach Tana Umaga has shown his respect for the hosts by naming a near full-strength side.
Others have also rested some of their All Blacks who started the Tests against the Lions but the Hurricanes, needing to win against the Crusaders to avoid travelling to South Africa next weekend, will start with their full complement of All Blacks.
While they play away this time, the Crusaders had the better of the Hurricanes 20-12 during their regular season game in Christchurch on May 13.
They have rested their All Blacks frontrow but will start with captain Kieran Read and also Israel Dagg at fullback while lock Sam Whitelock is on the bench.
In South Africa, where it has been officially announced that the Kings and the Cheetahs, are being culled from the competition from next season, the Lions continue their good run from last season and are buoyed by having several of their players in the starting 15 of the Springboks in the three home June Tests against France.
They look strong as ever and at the moment and remain as the main threat to the dominance by NZ teams, as was the case last year when they made it to the final.
Across the Tasman from New Zealand, there are almost no signs even at this final stage of the regular season of an upswing by the Australian franchises.
The Reds started against the Highlanders with eight players aged 23 or younger and felt upbeat after last weekend’s 16-15 home win against the Brumbies and hoping to end the 28-game losing sequence by Australian teams to the NZ franchises but found the Highlanders too strong.
The uncertainty in Australia regarding which teams to be kept out of the competition from next year remains unsolved, with both the Rebels and Force deciding not to go out quietly and without a fight.
Thus what should have been decided by the Australia Rugby Union a few months ago remains hanging in the air.
For most journalists and columnists, that the competition has turned shambolic is a point of contention that continues to be picked on.
The overall points table gives the clearest picture that all is not well in Super Rugby, especially the decision to have the conference system to replace the previous round-robin format involving all teams.
The Brumbies are in the playoffs by topping the Australian conference but after 14 matches have only 34 points from only six wins. The Blues, despite being at the bottom of NZ conference, have 37 points.
Amongst the six South African teams, the Stormers top one of the two conferences but also with only 34 points from 14 games.
The organisers are hoping that the culling of three teams from next year to make a total of 15 will make Super Rugby more competitive but many are sceptical.
The option favoured by most commentators is the former round-robin format and with the number of teams reduced further, with 12 being talked about as the better total.