Round Nine continues on Saturday with some crunch Super Rugby clashes that could determine a potential new tournament leader.
The Chiefs (31 points) currently lead the race, but could be knocked off top spot if they lose to the eighth-placed Sharks and either one of the Stormers (28), Bulls (28) or Highlanders (26) win their respective clashes against the Reds, Brumbies and Blues.
Four matches to preview, lets get to it then!
Hurricanes v Crusaders
Westpac Stadium, Wellington
The Hurricanes will hope to pick up where they left off a fortnight ago when they return from their bye to tackle the Crusaders in the New Zealand capital.
Two bonus points separate the sixth-placed Hurricanes and the seventh-placed Crusaders on the Super Rugby ladder and victory this weekend would be vital for either side.
The hosts have suprised everyone but themselves having proved their pre-season critics wrong with four wins and three losses thus far this season, but their leaky defence cost them a potential win over the Cheetahs in week six.
They're well rested after demolishing the Sharks in Round Seven, but will be without in-form rookie scrum-half TJ Perenara (ankle) and Jack Lam (concussion) for Saturday's crucial derby clash.
The Hurricanes take on a buoyant Crusaders side that tipped over the previously unbeaten Stormers in Christchurch last Saturday, with Tom Taylor scoring all his side's points in the seven-time champions' 31-24 win.
Although the Crusaders have lost three games this year, the Christchurch-based side have carved out a niche of peaking at the right time in the Super Rugby competition and will be a tough nut to crack come kick-off at the Cake Tin - a venue the Hurricanes are yet to taste victory this season after they were beaten by the Highlanders (19-17) and the Cheetahs (47-38).
To beat the Crusaders, Hurricanes fans will be hoping for more of the same attacking rugby from their team that they've produced to date. So far, just the fourth placed Bulls (234 points) and the 11th placed Cheetahs (227 points, in eight games) have scored more points than the Hurricanes (225).
The Hurricanes and the Bulls have scored the joint most tries (26) so far, while the Crusaders have scored 174 points and scored 13 tries.
To continue their collective electric streak further out, the forwards will need to match the Crusaders pack that had seven of its eight starting members against the Stormers as All Blacks plus Owen Franks on the bench.
The match will also be a special milestone for Crusaders pivot cum centre Dan Carter, who runs out for his 100th game for the franchise.
Prediction: Home ground advantage hasn't proved very helpful for the 'Canes at Westpac Stadium this season, but they should put up a decent fight only to lose their way at the end. Crusaders by six!
Hurricanes: 15 Andre Taylor, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith (c), 12 Tim Bateman, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Chris Eaton, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Karl Lowe, 6 Faifili Levave, 5 Jeremy Thrush, 4 Jason Eaton, 3 Jeffery Tooamga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Ben May.
Replacements: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Michael Bent, 18 James Broadhurst, 19 Mark Reddish, 20 Frae Wilson, 21 Tusi Pisi, 22 Alapati Leiua.
Crusaders: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Adam Whitleock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Dan Carter, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Tom Taylor, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Tom Donnelly, 3 Ben Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Owen Franks, 18 Luke Romano, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Ryan Crotty, 22 Tom Marshall.
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Waratahs v Melbourne Rebels
Sydney Football Stadium
Saturday's second game pits the 'Tahs against the Rebels in a game doubters are predicting could be an under-whelming affair at Sydney Football Stadium.
Let's face it, the Rebels cannot get much worse than their 37-6 reverse at the Brumbies last week. They were a team lacking in cohesion, hunger, ideas; you name it they were falling short. Such was the showing that it added weight to talk that one cannot throw individuals together expecting greatness.
Wallaby back James O'Connor was arguably the only one of the Danny Cipriani and Kurtley Beale triumvirate that offered any real threat in Canberra as Jake White's side made easy work of their opponents, who failed to cross the whitewash or in fact make it even close to threatening for a five-pointer.
Now the big question is, could that epic low be the springboard to right some wrongs - note the sugar-coating of things and adding the positive spin. Changes to the line-up that lost last weekend sees Lloyd Johansson and Michael Lipman given starting positions ahead of Mitch Inman and Al Campbell. Lipman will add more grunt to the pack alongside Jarrod Saffy and Gareth Delve while Luke Jones' shift back into the engine room may help Hugh Pyle.
They face a side this week that will undoubtedly have an eye on topping the Australian conference. The Waratahs will be buoyed by their most recent showing, when they defeated Western Force 23-18 in a result that moved them level with the Reds and just three points off the pace-setting Brumbies.
It has been their flankers who have stolen the show thus far this term as Chris Alcock continues to impress on the openside while converted lock Dave Dennis was superb against the Force, fully deserving his try. If they, like the Brumbies, can attack the Rebels' pack then it may be another home win.
A boost for them is that former Wallabies captain Rocky Elsom has been named on an eight-man bench for what could be his first 'Tahs game since 2008,
Prediction: Waratahs will be too strong and savvy. Home win by 7!
Waratahs: 15 Bernard Foley, 14 Tom Kingston, 13 Rob Horne, 12 Tom Carter, 11 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 10 Berrick Barnes, 9 Brendan McKibbin, 8 Wycliff Palu, 7 Chris Alcock, 6 Dave Dennis, 5 Kane Douglas, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Sekope Kepu, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Benn Robinson (c).
Replacements: 16 Rocky Elsom, 17 Daniel Halangahu, 18 Jono Jenkins, 19 Sarel Pretorius, 20 Paddy Ryan, 21 Lopeti Timani, 22 Sitaleki Timani, 23 John Ulugia.
Melbourne Rebels: 15 Kurtley Beale, 14 Lachlan Mitchell, 13 Lloyd Johansson, 12 James O'Connor, 11 Mark Gerrard, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Gareth Delve (c), 7 Michael Lipman, 6 Jarrod Saffy, 5 Hugh Pyle, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Rodney Blake, 2 Ged Robinson, 1 Nic Henderson.
Replacements: 16 Luke Holmes, 17 Jono Owen, 18 Al Campbell, 19 Tim Davidson, 20 Richard Kingi, 21 Julian Huxley, 22 Cooper Vuna.
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Sharks v Chiefs
Kings Park Stadium, Durban
If the Sharks beat the Chiefs, they will manage what only the Highlanders could achieve in this season's competition. The Hamilton-based franchise are on a six match unbeaten run since their 23-19 loss to the men from Dunedin in their season opener which has pushed them to the top of the standings.
Sharks coach John Plumtree knows the importance of this match and has already identified as Chiefs and All Blacks centre Sonny Bill Williams as one of the players his troops will have to stop if they want to secure a victory.
Plumtree has demanded more consistency from his team in their quest to make the play-offs.
"Winning is a habit and once the ball is rolling, so the victories become 'easier' (or teams know how to find ways to win close games)," said.
"For The Sharks, three of their four losses have been by a heart-breaking seven points or less, suggesting that the bounce of a ball, a missed tackle or an incorrect decision may well have been the difference between one log point and four," added Plumtree.
The Sharks, who returned from their to Australia and New Zealand, earlier this week will try to build last week's 29-23 win over the Blues in Auckland.
Captain and number eight Keegan Daniel, who is in the form of his life, impressed in that match with his attacking play and if the Chiefs want to win this encounter they will have to stop this player from gaining momentum.
The Chiefs' main attacking threat will come from an unlikely source in the form of prop Arizona Taumalolo who is the tournament's leading try scorer at the moment with six tries.
Taumolo has proved unstoppable when he gets to within a few metres of the try-line and illustrated this twice during his side's 39-33 win over the Cheetahs last week.
But apart from Williams and Taumololo, the Chiefs have several other key players who will keep the Sharks defenders busy. Especially amongst their backs, where Aaron Cruden, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Lelia Masaga and Richard Kahui are all capable of changing the course of a match with moments of brilliance.
Prediction: These sides have met on 14 previous occasions in the tournament and have sevens wins apiece. Although the Sharks are always competitive in their own backyard this Chiefs team will have too much class for them. Chiefs by six!
Sharks: 15 Riaan Viljoen 14 Louis Ludik, 13 JP Pietersen, 12 Tim Whitehead, 11 Lwazi Mvovo, 10 Patrick Lambie, 9 Charl McLeod, 8 Keegan Daniel (c), 7 Willem Alberts, 6 Jacques Botes, 5 Anton Bresler, 4 Steven Sykes, 3 Jannie du Plessis, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Dale Chadwick.
Replacements: 16 Craig Burden 17 Wiehahn Herbst 18 Pieter-Steph du Toit 19 Jean Deysel 20 Marcell Coetzee 21 Frederic Michalak 22 Meyer Bosman.
Chiefs: 15 Andrew Horrell, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Alex Bradley, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Liam Messam, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Craig Clarke (c), 3 Ben Tameifuna, 2 Mahonri Schwalger, 1 Arizona Taumalolo.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Josh Hohneck, 18 Michael Fitzgerald, 19 Tanerau Latimer, 20 Augustine Pulu, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Robbie Robinson.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Bulls v Brumbies
Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
Former Bok coach Jake White heads into his first match with the Brumbies in his homeland when the Aussie conference leaders take on the rampaging Bulls.
Despite impressing thus far this season, victory for this rejuvinated Brumbies outfit will be a tough ask. White's troops have the travel and jet lag battle to contend with as well as a poor record at Loftus Versfeld, given their last recorded win at the Bulls' fortress was six years ago.
The Brumbies led the Bulls 21-20 at half-time in their last match In Pretoria early in the 2010 season, before being overrun in the second half to lose 50-32.
However, the men from the Australian capital will be brimming with confidence after their 37-6 thrashing of the Melbourne Rebels at Canberra Stadium last weekend. It was their fourth win in seven matches, and allowed them to retain a narrow lead atop the Australian conference.
Facing the Bulls - currently the joint South African leaders with the Stormers - on enemy territory in front of a hostile crowd is a much tougher proposition though.
"The reality is quite simple and that's that even in the glory days of the Brumbies they couldn't win in South Africa, let alone at Loftus," White told AAP.
"So no one is under any illusions about how tough it will be.
"We'll do our best and make sure we prepare like we know we can and give ourselves a fair chance."
Prediction: The Bulls have not lost to any Australian team at home for the past 10 matches, and we expect that streak to stretch to 11. Bulls by nine!
Bulls: 15 Zane Kirchner, 14 Akona Ndungane, 13 JJ Engelbrecht, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Bjorn Basson, 10 Morne Steyn, 9 Francois Hougaard, 8 Pierre Spies (c), 7 Jacques Potgieter, 6 CJ Stander, 5 Wilhelm Steenkamp, 4 Juandre Kruger, 3 Werner Kruger, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Dean Greyling/Dawie Steyn.
Replacements: 16 Bongi Mbonambi, 17 Frik Kirsten, 18 Gerrit-Jan van Velze, 19 Arno Botha, 20 Jano Vermaak, 21 Louis Fouche, 22 Johann Sadie.
Brumbies: 15 Jesse Mogg, 14 Henry Speight, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Pat McCabe, 11 Joe Tomane, 10 Christian Lealiifano, 9 Nic White, 8 Fotu Auelua, 7 Michael Hooper, 6 Ben Mowen (c), 5 Sam Carter, 4 Scott Fardy, 3 Dan Palmer, 2 Stephen Moore, 1 Ben Alexander.
Replacements: 16 Anthony Hegarty, 17 Ruaidhri Murphy, 18 Peter Kimlin, 19 Ita Vaea, 20 Ian Prior, 21 Robbie Coleman, 22 Tevita Kuridrani.
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)