The Western Force and the Queensland Reds will meet in the fifth round of rugby union's Super 14 tomorrow, bringing into focus the grand experiment of endowing Australia with a fourth franchise.
Neither side has won in four rounds, and the Perth-based Force heavily recruited Queensland talent in establishing its inaugural squad. Remnants of ill-feeling remain between the new and established franchises, leaving both with plenty to play for.
Former Wallaby Ben Tune, who returns to the Reds lineup to ease a backline injury crisis, said the match had an emotional context but was unlikely to reach the pitch of Queensland's traditional clashes with New South Wales.
"I can understand people trying to build it up like a Waratahs' match, but the Waratahs' matches are 100 years in the making," Tune said.
"If anything it's a little bit disrespectful to the history behind that match to try to compare a Queensland-Western Australia match in the same light. It's an interstate match and we're 0-4 and their 0-4 so it's a pretty important match just in terms of both teams trying to get a win," he added.
The match will focus attention on the depth of talent in Australian rugby, used by critics as a principal argument against the expansion of the Super 12 to the Super 14. Both Queensland and the Perth-based Western Force have been stretched by injuries this season and tomorrow's match may show whether either or both teams can keep pace with their opponents.
South Africa's Cheetahs, who beat the competition-leading Wellington Hurricanes last week for their second win of the season, are seen to owe part of their success to the fact they have developed out of an established rugby region.
The Force's creation in Western Australia, an area lean on rugby history, has forced them to hunt talent elsewhere, affecting the strength of teams such as Queensland.
The Perth franchise has helped to stir new competition between the four Australian franchises for available proven talent, making it more difficult for each to keep players. That fact was brought home this week by news all four Australian teams are hunting the signature of Wallabies and ACT Brumbies utility back Matt Giteau.
The management of South Africa's five franchises stirred controversy this week as SARU officials wavered over plans to plans to relegate their worst-performed team at the end of the current season and to promote the Eastern Province-based Southern Spears.
The Spears insist their promotion is automatic, but newly elected SARU boss Oregan Hoskins showed signs this week of weakening his resolve on the promotion-relegation issue.
"There are two issues that need to be addressed, the first being the issue of relegation, and the second being the fact that the Southern Spears have become a reality that needs to be addressed. It would be a very sad day if one of the existing franchises has to be relegated at the end of this series," he said.