Just three rounds of Super Rugby's regular season remain and the race for playoff spots continues to heat up.
While playoff hopes for the Reds, Sunwolves and Blues have all but been crushed, there's still plenty to play for for the Lions, Bulls, Waratahs and Chiefs. But playoff contention will be all but over if the Chiefs or Waratahs lose their derby clashes with the Crusaders and Rebels respectively.
Read on for some of the key storylines to keep an eye on this weekend.
Last chance saloon and one important Wallaby audition
The Wallabies World Cup jersey has been released - to many mixed reactions - but the players set to wear them is yet to be determined.
In the game that highlights the round for the Aussie conference, there'll be Wallaby auditions across the park as the Waratahs take on the Rebels, while both sides battle for a spot in the playoffs. The Rebels sit just one point behind the conference-leading Brumbies (who are certain to secure an easy away win over the Sunwolves), while the Waratahs' hopes hang by a thread after a disastrous loss to the Jaguares in Sydney last weekend.
Whether either side deserve a spot in the playoffs is yet to be determined. The Rebels suffered a form slump through the middle of the season, highlighted by their three game losing streak kicked off by their 41-24 loss at home to the Stormers, 23-20 defeat to a sluggish Waratahs in Sydney and 29-19 fall to the Hurricanes despite their dominance in the second half and sit on a 7-6 season.
The Waratahs, meanwhile, have played out a season akin to a Latin American telenovela. It's had a mix of highs (defeating the Crusaders 20-7 in Sydney and wins over the Reds and Rebels), lows (their embarrassing 31-29 loss to the Sunwolves in Newcastle) and drama (the Israel Folau saga and Tolu Latu's drink driving charge). For even the most rusted on Tahs supporters, it's been trying. Recording a 5-8 season with three games to come, everything's on the line come Friday night and their Wallaby contingent will be desperate to put on a show, not only to keep their season alive, but to secure their Wallabies jersey.
After 15 rounds and with just three to go, there are still plenty of question marks over who'll be lining up for the Wallabies. Will it be Quade Cooper or Bernard Foley at flyhalf? Will Genia, Nick Phipps or Jake Gordon at 9? Rob Simmons or Adam Coleman? Adam Ashley-Cooper or Reece Hodge? But perhaps, in the most crucial match ups of the game, who'll take the fullback jersey in the absence of fired Israel Folau?
Both Kurtley Beale and Dane Haylett-Petty are leading contenders for the jersey, but Friday night's clash could be the decider for who'll take the role at the Rugby World Cup in three months.
In a position many believe to be his best, Beale has been revitalised since moving into the absent No.15 position since Folau's suspension and eventual sacking and has admitted fullback is his preferred position for the World Cup. Since moving to the position in the Tahs last clash with the Rebels, Beale has stepped up, run sharp attacking lines, and created plenty of attacking opportunities. One of the three highest-ranked players in the competition for offloads, Beale looks invigorated.
Much of the same could be said for Haylett-Petty. Bringing a sense of calm to the Rebels backline structure, DHP runs the right lines in attack and creates plenty of opportunities for his fellow backs. But, perhaps, what he brings over Beale is his strength in defence. While Beale is known for his tackling woes, DHP suffers no such problem.
While Beale told reporters at the Wallabies Indigenous jersey launch that he would not turn Friday's match into a personal battle with DHP, there's no doubt both players are acutely aware of just how important their performance will be for their World Cup hopes.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Crusaders off the boil, but Fiji trek will be no test
With three rounds left of the regular season every team is challenging for a stronger position on the table. Everyone, except the Crusaders.
Thirteen points clear of their next closest threat - the Hurricanes - the Crusaders have yet again secured a home semifinal and most certainly Grand Final, and will surely add another two wins to their log in facing the Chiefs in Fiji and hosting the Rebels the following week.
But, despite their clear dominance of the competition, the Crusaders have hardly set the world on fire through this topsy-turvy competition.
Last week they produced an uncharacteristically error-ridden 19-11 victory over the Blues - hardly quieting any calls they've fallen away from their usual standards - while they were held to a shock 21-21 draw with the Sharks at their Christchurch fortress in early May, only to draw 19-all with the Stormers in Cape Town two weeks later. Add to that their 20-12 loss to the Waratahs in Sydney in March, the Crusaders are clearly off the boil.
The Crusaders' edge up front was dented over the past few weeks with the absence of Owen Franks through a shoulder injury, captain Kieran Read to a shoulder stinger and Codie Taylor through a fractured finger, while they've struggled to find rhythm in their backline.
But if Scott Robertson is worried by the side's see-sawing performances he hasn't shown any signs, in fact he's confident enough to stand down flanker Matt Todd - who has already completed his required two All Blacks rest weeks - while George Bridge will provide an unlikely sight when he starts from the bench. Happily for Roberston, Read will make his return after two weeks to give the forwards some much needed oomph.
Their trip to Suva couldn't come at a better time. The injury-ravaged Chiefs will put up little fight, providing the Crusaders the perfect chance to find consistency and bring some rhythm back into their game ahead of the post season.
In a season where the New Zealand conference has hit a flat patch, New Zealand teams have fallen off the pace and for the first time since the conference system's introduction, it looks likely that only two of the five Kiwi sides will secure a playoff spot - the Crusaders and the Highlanders.
While no one could threaten the Crusaders position, the Hurricanes look vulnerable. They still have the second best points haul and a chance to secure a home quarterfinal. They're also likely the only side that could threaten the Crusaders' chance of a three-peat, but in recent weeks they've been exposed.
With a backline full of firepower in Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, TJ Perenara and Ngani Laumape, the Hurricanes deserve plenty of respect, but it's their inability to secure the ball up front and provide for their backs that makes them vulnerable. Especially when coming up against big boppers in the Sharks and Lions.
Their set-piece needs work and they've clearly gone through a form slump. Prior to last weekend's bye, the Canes were overrun 28-20 by the Jaguares at home, were forced to work for their 22-12 victory over the Blues and pulled out a 29-19 victory over the Rebels after they were dominated throughout the second half.
For everyone else, playoff hopes are all but dashed. The Highlanders have only spiralled with the absence of Ben Smith, Liam Squire, and until last week, Waisake Naholo. They went winless in South Africa, sit one point out of the top eight and now face a bye week. While for the Chiefs and inconsistent Blues they simply don't have the talent required.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Bulls must rediscover faith in identity despite absence of Pollard, Vermeulen
The Bulls have been the great overachievers of the South African Super Rugby season since thumping the Stormers in decisive fashion in the opening round of the competition, and topping the conference ladder for seven of the 15 weeks to date.
That stat, on its own, is remarkable given the topsy-turvy nature of the conference that has also seen the Sharks, the Lions and, most recently and currently, the Jaguares on top of the log; even the Stormers, the only team yet to top the conference, and the only team in it to sit outside the playoff berths, are just six points off the Jaguares with three rounds of matches to play.
Yet the Bulls are potentially seeing their season unravel given the manner of their defeat by the Brumbies in Canberra last week. The defeat in and of itself was no disaster even though it saw them slip from first to third in the South African Conference standings. But the manner of the defeat, and the Bulls' game plan on the night, indicated that the team, without Handre Pollard for the remainder of their tour of Australia and New Zealand, was running on empty.
Certainly their lack of dynamism, until too late, to chase a converted try that would have secured a losing bonus point in Canberra was confounding as well as disappointing. Who knows the importance of a single losing bonus point at season's end? But it was nowhere near as confounding as the game plan that saw them looking to put the ball wide throughout the match with the backs more often than not in a deep alignment.
Attacking rugby is to be applauded, of course.
But the Bulls' adopted game plan seemed to suggest they had lost all sense of direction given the manner in which they had won seven of their previous 12 fixtures: Their game plan previously, remember, had been based on the kicking game of Pollard, around which the Bulls, when successful, had claimed territory and then pressured their opponents; whenever their opponents erred, the Bulls -- Pollard - kicked points. Nowhere in that DNA would we find "spinning the ball" imprinted. And the game plan seemed to ignore the physical attributes that had secured victory - with Pollard in the side -- over the Rebels in Melbourne the week before.
Pollard was absent, of course, and the Bulls were always going to miss his composure and playmaking; not only is he the Bulls' best and most important player, but he's been in career-best form this season - and not just with the boot. The Bulls before Canberra had scored just 28 tries; still only the Stormers and the Sunwolves have scored fewer this season. But the thought that the side in his absence was going to become an attacking dynamo, away from home, against a team that had won four of their previous five matches, was surely an error.
Factor in poor levels of execution, and it's no surprise that the Brumbies found it all too easy to shut down much of the Bulls' threat behind the gain line.
Now the Bulls face the Blues without Duane Vermeulen, who has returned home to be rested per SA Rugby's agreements with contracted Springboks and their franchises. This really could be too much for the Bulls to counter; it's really hard to think of them conjuring victory without Pollard AND Vermeulen, and it's equally not hard to think what might happen on the other side of the ball if they play wide again.
The Blues might be bottom of the pile in New Zealand, but they have won five of their past six matches at home. They also will draw comfort from historical numbers against the Bulls, as they have won four of the past six fixtures between the sides - including the past two - and 11 of 12 at home, with seven victories by 13+ points.
The Bulls have rebounded from disappointments this season, and victory against expectations in Auckland will give them a massive fillip; it could even all but secure post-season football - which would be massive given both their 2018 campaign and the loss of big-name players for next season. Much as victory would be huge, defeat this week will neither be disastrous nor spell the end of their finals hopes. Still this fixture shapes as something more than a simple pursuit of four of five competition points given the apparent loss of faith in their identity last week.