Canterbury heads the top four ahead of Southland, Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay as we head into Round Nine of the Air New Zealand Cup.
Things can change quickly in the moveable landscape which is the Air New Zealand Cup competition. Just ask Hawke's Bay, who kept their semi-finals hopes alive with a resounding win over Otago.
Having started the round eighth on the standings, Hawke's Bay saw the four teams immediately above them -Tasman, Auckland, Wellington and Taranaki - all lose before they kicked off at McLean Park.
Their swift advance will be of some comfort to those provinces below them entering the business end of the season.
Thursday, 24 September
Wellington v Southland
Round Nine opens with a rematch of last year's semi-final between hosts Wellington and Southland at Westpac Stadium on Thursday.
The Stags will fancy their chances against a wobbly Wellington outfit who are struggling to find their rhythm in this year's tournament.
The Lions' last two matches have seen two unimpressive performances, only one try and defeats by both Taranaki and Waikato, which has knocked them down to seventh on the ladder.
Wellington were reliant on the goalkicking of Daniel Kirkpatrick for all of their points as they slumped to their third loss in four outings last week in an error-ridden display during which Waikato outmuscled them 23-18 in Hamilton.
And with the New Zealand capital still getting over its weekend hangover following the All Blacks' Tri-Nations win over Australia, the home side will need all the support they can get against a determined Southland unit.
It's been a dream season so far for the men from the deep south who sit snugly in behind Canterbury on 28 points in the standings.
Southland continued to slowly warm to their task last week by grinding out a 14-6 win over lowly Counties-Manukau. It was a match that they would have targeted in bringing home a full house of points, but will be happy just escaping with a win.
A better effort will be needed, however, from the visitors trip to the capital where Wellington will welcome three All Blacks- Cory Jane, Hosea Gear and Rodney So'oialo - back to the fray.
In other changes, Mark Reddish replaces the injured Api Naikatini at lock while Dane Coles returns at hooker, and prop Anthony Perenise starts at tighthead in place of All Black prop Neemia Tialata who is in bed with tonsillitis.
Southland will be without their international scrum-half Jimmy Cowan, but do get Jamie Mackintosh back after the skipper took last week off to rehab a tricky wrist injury.
Wellington: 15 Cory Jane, 14 Alapati Leuia, 13 Robert Fruean, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 9 Alby Mathewson, 8 Rodney So'oialo, 7 Serge Lilo, 6 Victor Vito, 5 Daniel Ramsay, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Anthony Perenise, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Jacob Ellison (c).
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson/Motu Matu'u, 17 John Schwalger, 18 Nick Passi, 19 Scott Fuglistaller, 20 Ruki Tipuna, 21 Fa'atonu Fili, 22 David Smith.
Southland: 15 Glen Horton, 14 Matt Saunders, 13 Kenny Lynn, 12 Jason Kawau, 11 Pehi Te Whare, 10 Robbie Robinson, 9 Scott Cowan, 8 David Hall, 7 Tim Boys, 6 John Hardie, 5 Joe Tuineau, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Chris King, 2 Jason Rutledge, 1 Jamie Mackintosh (c).
Replacements: 16 Fai Mika, 17 Dave Gannon, 18 Hua Tamariki, 19 Noa Soqeta, 20 Sonny Rangitoheriri, 21 Tony Koonwaiyou, 22 James Wilson.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)
Friday, 25 September
North Harbour v Counties Manukau
Both North Harbour and Counties Manukau will be out to shed their bottom-of-the-table status when they clash in Albany on Friday.
North Harbour's second win of the season saw them overcome a 6-14 deficit, to beat Auckland 16-14 at Eden Park in a contest of questionable quality.
But a win is a win, something the Harbour have been struggling to achieve in this year's tournament and will be relieved to avoid a seventh straight defeat on the trot.
They will now be looking to make it two consecutive wins in a row - something that they have failed to accomplish in 2009.
The Steelers result against Southland last week may have been another losing one, but they showed that they won't be making life easy for anyone in the competition - despite having only two wins to their name.
Only one point seperates these two teams, and feels the loser of this match will determine who takes home the wooden spoon at the end of the competition.
North Harbour: 15 Jack McPhee, 14 Anthony Tuitavake, 13 George Pisi, 12 Andrew Mailei, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Michael Harris, 9 Chris Smylie, 8 Viliami Ma'afu, 7 Tom Chamberlain, 6 Anthony Boric, 5 Filo Paulo, 4 Chris Smith, 3 Ben Afeaki, 2 Michael Mayhew, 1 Michael Reid.
Replacements: 16 James Hanson, 17 James Afoa, 18 William Whetton, 19 Scott Uren, 20 Matt France, 21 Ben Botica, 22 Ken Pisi.
Counties Manukau: 15 Tim Nanai-Williams, 14 Lelia Masaga, 13 Siale Piutau, 12 Dean Cummins, 11 Sherwin Stowers, 10 Tasesa Lavea (c), 9 Notise Tauafao, 8 Waka Setitaia, 7 Mark Selwyn, 6 DJ Forbes, 5 Rees Logan, 4 Jamie Chipman, 3 Tuaefe Palelei, 2 Ilaisa Maasi, 1 Graham Dewes,
Replacemnets: 16 Matt Holloway, 17 Po'aloi Taula, 18 Fritz Lee, 19 Ryota Asano/Alepini Olosoni, 20 David Raikuna, 21 August Pulu/Samisoni Fisilau, 22 Ahsee Tuala.
Referee: Keith Brown
Taranaki v Waikato
Waikato will need to put their inability to win away from home behind them when they tackle Taranaki at New Plymouth on Friday.
Waikato remain alive in the competition after beating Wellington 23-18 in Hamilton, showing the desperation and enthusiasm necessary to collect their fourth win.
It was Waikato's third home game and third home win, but they have lost four of their five away matches to date and need to arrest that slide against Taranaki if they are to climb further up the points table.
Waikato coach Chris Gibbes couldn't agree more.
"We are focusing again this week on lifting our performance and in particular how we perform away from home," Gibbes said.
"It is a big match with the Ryan Wheeler Memorial Trophy again up for grabs. The trophy means a lot to us, as it does to Taranaki, so come Friday night it is going to be a good battle."
Gibbes has named the same Waikato forward pack that beat Wellington in last week's match at Yarrow Stadium.
Meanwhile, in the backs winger Tim Mikkelson gets a start ahead of Henry Speight and Save Tokula is bracketed with Roimata Hansell-Pune at number 13, with Gibbes awaiting the result of Tokula's judicial hearing later this afternoon.
Waikato are sitting in ninth place on the table with 17 points, while Taranaki are in eighth place with 18 points.
"It is going to be a big match, a big challenge and we are focused on fronting up on Friday night," Gibbes said.
Waikato: 15 Sosene Anesi, 14 Tim Mikkelson, 13 Save Tokula, 12 Callum Bruce, 11 Dwayne Sweeney, 10 Trent Renata, 9 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 8 Alex Bradley, 7 Jack Lam, 6 Liam Messam (c), 5 Kevin O'Neill, 4 Romana Graham, 3 Latu Talakai, 2 Ole Avei, 1 Hikairo Forbes.
Replacements: 16 Vern Kamo, 17 Lionel Wairau, 18 Kent Fife, 19 Jordan Smiler, 20 David Bason, 21 Jackson Willison, 22 Henry Speight.
Referee: Kane McBride