The Wellington Hurricanes and Auckland Blues kick off a climactic final Super 14 round today in which six teams have a chance of joining the Canterbury Crusaders in the final four.
The make-up of the semi-finalists is unlikely to be decided until the final match of the weekend when the Coastal Sharks play the Waikato Chiefs.
The table-topping Crusaders play the out-of-contention Otago Highlanders and are assured of one home semi-final, but behind them there are multiple permutations that could decide the remainder of the play-off participants.
The second-placed Hurricanes have 40 points, just six ahead of the sixth placed Chiefs, while sandwiched inbetween are the New South Wales Waratahs (39 points), Western Stormers and Sharks (37) and Blues (36).
Adding to the intrigue there is added pressure in two crucial local derbies — the Hurricanes against the Blues and the Waratahs against the Queensland Reds — which double as de facto national trials in several positions.
A draw should be enough to get the Hurricanes into the semi-finals but the Blues will need to win, preferably with a bonus point and then hope other results go their way.
Recent history favours the Hurricanes, who have beaten the Blues the last three times they have met, and their chances have been boosted by the return of Jerry Collins after missing three games with a rib injury.
“Jerry’s obviously got the experience that you can’t ignore and brings a real physical presence,” said Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper.
Central figures in the contest will be rival hookers Andrew Hore and the Blues Keven Mealamu — with form favouring Hore ahead of All Blacks incumbent Mealamu — and midfield backs Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
The Waratahs are the only Australian team with a chance of making the play-offs but their fate hinges on another Australian side in their local derby with the Queensland Reds in Brisbane.
Although the Reds languish in 11th place nothing fires them up more than the annual clash with their neighbors and fiercest rivals, and they will want to reproduce the same form that saw them go close to downing the Crusaders last week.
Key match-ups in include the rival playmakers Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper, as well as the performance of former Waratahs centre Morgan Turinui now with the Reds.
Of the play-off contenders, form throughout the season suggests the third-placed Stormers have the easiest match of the round when they play the bottom-placed Lions at Johannesburg.