OPINION: It all started nearly six months ago. Marty Banks was the new kid on the block, Benji Marshall was smiling from ear to ear, Mils Muliaina had thoughts of adding to his huge All Black tally, Piri Weepu was training hard and the Waratahs were paying $15 at the TAB to win the Super Rugby competition.
If you picked any of these players in your prospective tournament XV you would be losing money. But if you had $100 on the Waratahs to win their first-ever title, you would be feeling happy with yourself right now.
Michael Cheika has pulled together a huge pack of forwards, a set of game breaking backs and joined them together with a clever halfback and first five. The mix and the form suggests that this will be the year of the Waratahs.
The previous frontrunners, South Africa's Sharks, have haemorrhaged two losses in their last two games against local opposition who are sitting near the bottom of the table. They now face the Stormers again in the last round, but this time in Cape Town. Another loss will almost definitely push them to third and no chance of a home final should they get that far.
Jake White's policy of taking the game back to the 60s appears to have a blip. In fact, South African rugby needs to seriously look at itself from the top down with four of their teams sitting from ninth to 14th position, leaving only the Sharks in the playoffs. And they are entering another team soon. The power of television and the dollar once again wins over common sense.
New Zealand's best placed franchise, the Crusaders, sit on equal points with the Sharks at second on the overall table and they are home to a Highlanders group that looked like a second XV playing their first XV in Sydney last Sunday.
No doubt they will not be as vulnerable only travelling to Christchurch and up against a team with only a couple of line breakers and a predictable pattern, so this should lead to an enthralling battle on Saturday night.
If the Crusaders win, they could end up in second spot but there is even the scenario that the Highlanders could be second if they snatch a five pointer. For these two teams, it will be very handy if the Sharks lose.
In Australia, the Brumbies play the Western Force in Canberra with both teams sitting on the same points and the likelihood the winner will be in the top six and the loser will not. Canberra is a tough place to travel to and win, so it will take a huge effort from the Honey Badger and his mates if they are to progress any further.
The Chiefs will need to win their game in Auckland against the Blues to have a chance of another crack at the title, which will be a tough ask as the Blues are generally not too bad when there is nothing on the game.
Desperation and a pleasing return to form last week against the Hurricanes should provide the Chiefs with plenty of confidence.
So there it is. The Waratahs and Crusaders will be the top two finishers, the Sharks and the Brumbies next, with the Highlanders and Chiefs at fifth and sixth which means the following week the Chiefs will be in South Africa and the Highlanders in Canberra.
In the end, it won't matter though. The Waratahs will be too big, too skilful and too clever for any of the other sides.
A Waratahs' victory will create a more interesting Rugby Championship starting in August and perhaps provide a touch of well needed confidence for the Australians.
Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.
- Taranaki Daily News
Where should Super Rugby's 18th franchise be based?Related story: (See story)