Ding, ding! It's the last round of Super Rugby 2011, with three teams vying for two play-off spots in what should be a dramatic weekend.
Ding, ding! It's the last round of Super Rugby 2011, with three teams vying for two play-off spots this weekend.
Despite the effects of a volcanic eruption in Chile, SANZAR have worked around the clock to ensure the tournament's decisive final round of crunch clashes can go ahead.
The Highlanders needed a charter flight on Thursday to get to Auckland, while the Western Force left for Melbourne on the same day ahead of their match against the Rebels.
Three of the four teams playing on Friday are out of play-off contention, with only the Blues all but guaranteed a place in the top six.
Blues v Highlanders
Eden Park, Auckland
The Blues will have a real battle on their hands at Eden Park, as Pat Lam's troops bid to end a four-game losing streak and cement a play-off spot when they face the Highlanders in Auckland.
It's been a long, slippery slide the Blues will want to get off in a hurry ever since losing their place at the top of the standings. Luckily for them, the worst they can finish is sixth – the cut-off for a place in next week's knock-out stages – if results go their way .
But there is also the chance, albeit a slim one, that the Blues could drop out of the top six if they lose and other results go against them.
They're currently fourth following a dip in results over the last month, with the Blues' most recent defeat coming against the Crusaders in last weekend's battle for top spot in the NZ Conference.
The visiting Highlanders have nothing to lose but pride having played themselves out of play-offs reckoning after three successive losses.
They currently sit eighth with an eight-win, seven-loss record, though a month ago they were right on track for a top six spot and still would be had they not dropped home matches against the Lions and Force.
The Blues won their previous meeting against the Highlanders 15-10 thanks to the boot of Luke McAlister, who landed five penalties. That win in Dunedin in late April was part of nine-match unbeaten run that took the Blues to the top of the table.
These teams are no strangers to one other. They have met on 17 occasions, with the Blues victorious 12 times and losing only five of the clashes, making the Blues firm favourites this week.
Prediction: It won't be smooth sailing, but we think the Blues will dig deep and pull out a vital win over the southerners. Blues to win by seven.
Blues: 15 Jared Payne, 14 Joe Rokocoko, 13 Benson Stanley, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 Lachie Munro, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Charlie Faumuina.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Tevita Mailau, 18 Chris Lowrey, 19 Sean Polwart, 20 Alby Mathewson, 21 Winston Stanley, 22 Sherwin Stowers.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Matt Saunders, 13 Kendrick Lynn, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Siale Piutau, 10 Tony Brown, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Nasi Manu, 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Jarrad Hoeata, 3 Chris King, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh. (c).
Replacements: 16 Mo Schwalger, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Josh Bekhuis, 19 Nick Croswell, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Robbie Robinson, 22 Telusa Veainu.
Referee: Bryce Lawrence
Rebels v Force
AAMI Stadium, Melbourne
The Western Force will be out to erase memories of the embarrassing early season loss to the Rebels in Friday's return clash against the tournament newcomers.
Both sides have had their fair share of disruptions leading up to this dead-rubber all-Aussie derby in Melbourne.
The hosts learnt that they'll be guided under a new coach next season, after Rod Macqueen announced that he'll be stepping down after just one season in charge.
The visitors were in the headlines thanks to the imminent departure of Wallabies young gun James O'Connor from the Perth-based franchise after negotiations for a new deal broke down.
O'Connor's Super Rugby season ended a week early after receiving a ban following a dangerous tackle in last week's heartbreaking loss to the Reds.
And if losing their star back wasn't enough, the Force will also be without influential skipper Nathan Sharpe who has been ruled out with an ankle injury.
Force flanker David Pocock will lead the Western Force into battle in Sharpe's absence.
While neither the West Aussies or Victorians are able to make the Super Rugby finals there is still plenty of pride on the line in the final match of their respective campaigns.
The Western Force will, however, try to gain some consolation from their season of pain by finishing third in the Australian Super Rugby conference.
“The Rebels have enjoyed good support at home in Melbourne this year and like us will want to finish the season well,” said Force coach Richard Graham.
“I'm very confident in what the group we have selected can offer. It is importantly that we continue to focus as a team on working hard together.”
Prediction: Tough one! Can the Rebels send their coach off on a winning note? Sadly for Macqueen, we don't think they can. Force by three!
Rebels: 15 Mark Gerrard, 14 Richard Kingi, 13 Afusipa Taumoepeau, 12 Stirling Mortlock (c), 11 Cooper Vuna, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve, 7 Michael Lipman, 6 Jarrod Saffy, 5 Adam Byrnes, 4 Alister Campbell, 3 Greg Somerville, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Adam Freier, 17 Laurie Weeks, 18 Kevin O'Neill, 19 Tim Davidson, 20 Lachlan Mitchell, 21 Peter Betham, 22 Julian Huxley.
Western Force: 15 Patrick Dellit, 14 Alfie Mafi, 13 Mitch Inman, 12 Rory Sidey, 11 David Smith, 10 James Stannard, 9 Brett Sheehan, 8 Richard Brown, 7 David Pocock (c), 6 Matt Hodgson, 5 Sam Wykes, 4 Ben McCalman, 3 Matt Dunning, 2 Nathan Charles, 1 Kieran Longbottom.
Replacements: 16 Ben Whittaker, 17 Tetera Faulkner, 18 Tom Hockings, 19 Jono Jenkins, 20 Mark Swanepoel, 21 Willie Ripia, 22 Cameron Shepherd
Referee: Garratt Williamson