After 15 weeks and 8000 viewing minutes, it's still anyone's guess which teams will occupy the top six spots on the Super Rugby table.
After fifteen weeks and 8000 viewing minutes, it's still anyone's guess which teams will occupy the top six spots on the Super Rugby standings.
With another six weeks and 2000 minutes to go before the winner is found, only the Reds can rest easy knowing that a home play-off is in the bag.
The battle for that vital number one position in the New Zealand and South African Conferences still rages on, with the Blues and Stormers currently leading a close race to the finish.
The Crusaders have this weekend off so the Blues can stretch their lead over their Kiwi rivals in the New Zealand Conference, while the Stormers can't afford to slip up against the Rebels with the Sharks and Bulls breathing down their neck.
The Bulls lie just one point outside the top six behind the Waratahs and can leapfrog the Sydneysiders into a play-off position with victory at their Loftus Versfeld fortress.
Highlanders v Western Force
The Highlanders need to return to winning ways against the Western Force to have any chance of making the top six.
Victory is non-negotiable for the southerners, whose play-off ambitions took a turn for the worst after losing to the previously bottom-placed Lions in Dunedin last weekend.
This was a fixture the Highlanders would have circled as one of the easier fixtures on their 2011 calender. But were quickly reminded that there are no easy games in Super Rugby.
Now in eighth spot on the overall standings and with away games against the Waratahs and Blues to follow, Jamie Joseph's men will know another loss will spell the end of their campaign.
The Force may only be 12th with 28 points, however the Highlanders' trans-Tasman rivals will be a force to be reckoned with as shown in last week's heartbreaking defeat to the Hurricanes. The Force led for most of the match, only to be denied by two late tries at the death.
While the Force have long been out of finals contention, coach Richard Graham warned the Highlanders that his team won't be doing their hosts any favours come kick-off.
“In every game our intent is to perform to the best of our ability and win,” he said.
“We still have the same ambitions as a group to achieve that.
“We are looking forward to taking on what has been a very competitive Otago side.”
The Australian tourists also know how to beat the Highlanders in their own back yard, having won the last three clashes and the last two in Queenstown, New Zealand. However, the Force have never won at Carisbrook in Dunedin.
Speaking of which, Friday's match will also be the last played at the 'House of Pain', with the Highlanders moving house to the new Forsyth Barr Stadium.
They'll also be ditching their famous blue, gold and maroon colours that represent the three unions – Otago, North Otago and Southland – that back the Highlanders. Instead they'll be in … green, along with touches of dark blue and white. A colour change that has reportedly not gone down well with their fans.
Whether it's a pink, orange or violet kit they run out in – the Highlanders will want to bow out of New Zealand's oldest ground with a win.
“There's a lot of history at that ground and we want to put in a good performance to send it off well,” said Highlanders centre Shaun Treeby.
Prediction: The Highlanders blew it against the Lions, and the Force did the same against the Hurricanes. Tough to call – ultimately it will go down to the team who wants it more… Highlanders by six.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Kade Poki, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 John Hardie, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Mo Schwwalger, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).
Replacements: 16 Jason Rutledge, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Tom Donnelly, 19 Nick Crosswell, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Robbie Robinson, 22 Alando Soakai.
Western Force: 15 Cameron Shepherd, 14 Alfie Mafi, 13 Patrick Dellit, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 David Smith, 10 James Stannard, 9 Mark Swanepoel, 8 Ben McCalman, 7 David Pocock, 6 Matt Hodgson, 5 Nathan Sharpe (c), 4 Sam Wykes, 3 Tim Fairbrother, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Kieran Longbottom.
Replacements: 16 Ben Whittaker, 17 Matt Dunning, 18 Tom Hockings, 19 Richard Brown, 20 Chris Cottee, 21 Mitch Inman, 22 Nick Cummins.
Referee: Jonathon White
Melbourne Rebels v Stormers
Melbourne is the last stop for the Stormers on what has so far been a rather successful four-week Australasian tour.
Last year's finalists started on the wrong foot, losing to the Chiefs in Hamilton before bouncing back to beat the Blues in Auckland and then the Brumbies in Canberra.
The two wins thus far on the road kept the South African Conference-leading Stormers (on 52 points) hanging in third place on the overall log, with the Sharks (47) and Bulls (45) in hot pursuit.
With three matches of the regular season remaining and a play-offs spot not entirely assured, it means the Stormers can't afford to slack off against the tournament's new bottom-placed team (the Lions are now 14th).
It's the first meeting between the two sides, and whilst the Stormers will be favourites, the Rebels could prove to be a potential banana skin for Schalk Burger and his troops.
Though the Rebels are facing a seventh defeat on the trot, the tournament newbies have knocked over a few teams on their home turf. And with a vocal crowd behind them at AAMI Stadium, an upset can't be ruled out over the travel-weary Stormers.
The refreshed Rebels return from a bye as well as a two-match tour of the Republic, where crushing defeats to the Bulls and Cheetahs would have done little for their morale. Be that as it may, a return to familiar surrounds may just be the tonic needed to get the struggling Melbourne outfit back on the saddle.
They still boast an impressive side on paper, and are up against a team experiencing a real shortage of experience at fly-half with their first, second and third-choice pivots all nursing injuries back home in Cape Town.
It's through this channel that the Rebels will need to attack if they are to have any chance of raining on the Stormers' parade and give their loyal supporters this year something to cheer about.
For a Rebels fan, it could be wishful thinking. Especially with eight Springboks lining up for the Stormers – six of them in the back-line alone, and with another two on the bench. But stranger things have happened…
Prediction: We'll be the first to admit that we've got it wrong a few times when it comes to predicting Stormers' results. And yes, we may get it wrong again. But am I the only one that can smell an upset in the air? Rebels by three!
Rebels: 15 Richard Kingi, 14 Lachlan