The Chiefs can take a firm grip of the New Zealand conference on Friday when they run out to face the Reds at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.
It is all very tight in this conference with the Chiefs (46), Crusaders (45), Hurricanes (44) and Highlanders (44) fighting for that top position.
That is why the men from Hamilton can afford no slip-ups this week before they head to Dunedin to face the Highlanders in the final round.
Of course the Reds have nothing but pride to play for after their play-off hopes were dashed long ago. This is about now rebuilding under their new coaching team. What the future holds in terms of a boss next season remains unclear but each player does have a point to prove.
What will give them a semblance of hope of causing an upset against the Chiefs is the fact they have won their last three games at home. But they have not won four straight home matches in a single Super Rugby season since their last four regular-season games back in 2012.
Stopping Damian McKenzie, James Lowe and the rest is some ask though for this Reds group, who have been hit by the absence due to injury of fly-half Jake McIntyre. He was starting to grow in confidence as a playmaker so it is a shame for him, the Reds and this game that he’s out.
Aaron Cruden is anything but as he returns to the XV after being on the bench in Suva. This game is the perfect opportunity for both him and scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow to make a statement, both for franchise and country, ahead of the play-offs and the Rugby Championship.
Cruden will hope to unlock this Reds defence at will and with the Chiefs having scored 23 more tries than they have conceded this year, the largest positive disparity of any team in the competition and 40 higher than the Reds disparity (-17), all signs point to a healthy victory.
The last time the teams met: It was a one-sided encounter in Brisbane last year as the Chiefs ran out 24-3 winners, scoring tries through Bryce Heem, Liam Messam and Charlie Ngatai. Andrew Horrell kicked three conversions and a penalty while Quade Cooper’s penalty allowed the Reds to avoid the embarrassment of being nilled on their home turf in Will Genia and James Horwill’s Suncorp Stadium goodbye.
Players to watch: The pressure is on Reds fly-half Duncan Paia’aua as he goes up against the hugely experienced Aaron Cruden. With injury ruling out Jake McIntyre, this is a massive chance for Paia’aua to prove his worth. Reds co-interim head coach Matt O’Connor is confident in his ability but having the likes of Cruden, James Lowe and Seta Tamanivalu looking to unlock your channel is certainly a daunting test.
Speaking of chances, the Chiefs hand Lachlan Boshier a start in a reshuffle to their back-row. Sam Cane moves to eight but it’s blindside flanker Tom Sanders who continues to catch the eye. His work-rate, physicality and skills are top rate so one hopes, for the Reds sake, they have done their homework on him. Elsewhere there is a return for Tawera Kerr-Barlow, who has a big job displacing Brad Weber ahead of the play-offs.
Team news: The Brisbane side have made two changes to the starting XV for Friday’s clash, as Wallabies lock Kane Douglas replaces Lukhan Tui. In the other change, an ankle injury to regular fly-half Jake McIntyre presents an opportunity for playmaker Duncan Paia’aua to earn his first Super Rugby start. Paia’aua came on as an injury replacement for McIntyre at the interval last weekend and looked comfortable.
Chiefs head coach Dave Rennie has named Liam Messam on his bench. In the forwards, Kane Hames, Nathan Harris and Atu Moli form a powerful front-row, with Dominic Bird and Taleni Seu packing down at lock. All Black Sam Cane will lead the pack at number eight, he is joined in the loose forwards by Tom Sanders and exciting openside Lachlan Boshier. Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden return to the starting team.
Form: The Reds have won just one of their last four games and just three overall this season in a year to forget. They’ve scored just 28 tries, which is one less than the Sunwolves but defensively they haven’t been overly embarrassed, conceding an average of 29 points per fixture.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs are top of the Australasian group with ten victories and they won last week against the Crusaders in Fiji, bouncing back from a disappointing performance in defeat to the Waratahs in Sydney. They’ve scored 58 tries this year with only the Lions (60) ahead of them.
Prediction: The visitors simply have far too much quality in their side to lose on Friday. This should be a comfortable Chiefs win by 20.
2015: Chiefs won 24-3 in Brisbane
2013: Reds won 31-23 in Hamilton
2012: Reds won 42-27 in Brisbane
2011: Reds won 19-11 in Hamilton
2010: Reds won 23-18 in Hamilton
2009: Chiefs won 50-26 in Brisbane
2008: Chiefs 32-20 in Hamilton
2007: Chiefs won 21-19 in Brisbane
Reds: 15 Jack Tuttle, 14 Chris Kuridrani, 13 Samu Kerevi, 12 Henry Taefu, 11 Eto Nabuli, 10 Duncan Paia’aua, 9 Nick Frisby, 8 Curtis Browning, 7 Liam Gill, 6 Hendrik Tui, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Cadeyrn Neville, 3 Greg Holmes, 2 Andrew Ready, 1 James Slipper (c)
Replacements: 16 Matt Mafi, 17 Sef Fa’agase, 18 Taniela Tupou, 19 Lukhan Tui, 20 Leroy Houston, 21 James Tuttle, 22 Anthony Fainga’a, 23 Campbell Magnay
Chiefs: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Seta Tamanivalu, 12 Anton Lienert-Brown, 11 James Lowe, 10 Aaron Cruden (cc), 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Sam Cane (cc), 7 Lachlan Boshier, 6 Tom Sanders, 5 Taleni Seu, 4 Dominic Bird, 3 Atu Moli, 2 Nathan Harris, 1 Kane Hames
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Siegfried Fisi’ihoi, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Mitchell Brown, 20 Liam Messam, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Andrew Horrell, 23 Sam McNicol
Date: Friday, July 8
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Kick-off: 19:45 local (09:45 GMT)
Referee: Nick Briant
Assistant Referees: Nic Berry, Jordan Way
TMO: Damien Mitchelmore