As the halfway mark of the 2014 Super Rugby season approaches, we assess the first three months of a campaign that has been anything but uneventful.
Currently the top three in the overall table are the Sharks, Brumbies and Chiefs, which is what the majority predicted before 2014's action started.
In stark contrast, at the bottom side on the ladder is the Stormers while things have been far from rosy for the Reds, Blues, Rebels and Cheetahs.
Here we delve into the goings on south of the equator as this ever-evolving competition continues to offer much on the field but also has areas of concern off it, with these intriguing subplots taking place with a World Cup on the horizon and an extra two teams joining the competition in 2016.
As mentioned, it's the Sharks, Brumbies and Chiefs currently on top in their respective conference but write off the likes of the Force, Waratahs, Crusaders and other play-off hopefuls at your peril. Although this trio lead the way, it is fair to say they have not been setting the 2014 competition alight with performances as the Sharks and Brumbies grind out wins while the champion Chiefs have blown more cold than hot in recent outings.
Not a bad poor patch
Sticking with the Chiefs, much has been made of their dip in form as they went three games without a win before claiming a nervy victory over the Rebels last weekend. Sloppy starts against the Bulls and Cheetahs saw them eventually recover to claim draws but the old cliche of getting results while not playing well springs to mind as even without hitting top form, they picked up eleven points in four games. Better to dip now than later we say.
Folau farce hurting 'Tahs
One shudders to think who took the brunt of boss Michael Cheika's frustration when he found out that Israel Folau would not be playing against the Western Force. Cleared to start by the Waratahs' doctor, full-back Folau was then ruled out by the Australian Rugby Union due to his throat injury. For how long he would be sidelined even Folau did not know at the time but with eight tries in four games it's clear any forced absence is a blow to their hopes.
If you're old enough, you're good enough?
Brad Thorn is 39 and was still playing professional rugby to a high standard until injury struck last week while Victor Matfield this year returned from the sidelines with a World Cup in mind. His performances have been excellent and integral to the Bulls being in contention for knock-out rugby. Statistics show he's the go-to man with 40 line-out takes (second in the competition) while it's noticeable how rivals struggle on their own throw. He's still got it.
Getting it right in Perth
The Force is strong with Michael Foley and Matt Hodgson. Five wins in a row now for the outfit from Perth as they continue to climb the standings, beating the Waratahs last week thanks to a treble from Nick Cummins. A win at the Rebels on Friday would take them top in the conference. Off the field they're on the money too as it's clear Cummins has a career after he hangs up his boots. Who can forget the "best post-match interview ever"?
In 2011 the conference system was established and with it came preference for more derbies in favour of lengthy tours. The financial benefits in terms of reduced travel costs for franchises will have been a plus point to go with increased meaning to matches from a tribal sense. However, what has transpired is that many stadia in fact look down on attendances and one guesses television figures are also possibly suffering. At the time of writing, former All Black pivot Andrew Mehrtens suggested a dramatic logistical change and he isn't too far wrong. Let us add into his argument that very few viewers from Australasia would stay up until 3am, sometimes 5am, to watch their team playing in the Republic, let alone a South African derby match. Also, surely fans going to their home team's venue would rather pay their money to see the likes of a touring Bismarck du Plessis, Israel Folau and Julian Savea than players they've just seen in respective Currie and ITM Cup comps?
Coaches under pressure
It's a results business and clearly fans of the Stormers and Reds will be getting a touch uncomfortable at the halfway point of the season. Under Allister Coetzee, the Stormers have one win from seven games while Richard Graham's Reds have three from eight. Some Capetonians may sight injury problems as the reason for their decline but the problem runs deeper than that as their, let's say uncomplicated, gameplan isn't bearing fruit. Yes, the defence is strong once again but just 107 points scored in seven games shows a real lack in ideas. The Reds meanwhile seem to be on the road to something Stormers-like - a sentence we thought would never be uttered - as their heads-up, expansive style looks to have been traded for a more conservative approach. With many saying Quade Cooper has matured as a player, I would argue maybe he needs to re-find his youthful flair and swagger.
Much has been spoken of Malakai Fekitoa and the Blues' decision not to contract him. That is history now and he certainly isn't looking back as the Highlanders centre is impressing everyone in Dunedin. Steve Hansen is keeping an eye on him but he would do well to also watch a flank at Fekitoa's team, Shane Christie and also fly-half Lima Sopoaga. Christie, although 28, is the form New Zealand openside right now while Sopoaga could soon get his chance, the same goes for hooker Rhys Marshall. In Australia, plenty are putting their hand up such as Rebels lock Luke Jones, Force blindside flank Angus Cottrell and 'Tahs lock Will Skelton. Meanwhile, Lions fly-half Marnitz Boshoff could well suit Heyneke Meyer's Boks, especially with Pat Lambie injured and Morne Steyn battling for starts in Paris...
By Adam Kyriacou