Canterbury v Auckland a clash for the ages
The ITM Cup round-robin was confusing, too crowded, and lacking in crowd support.
How amazing that the cup final in Christchurch this Saturday between Auckland and Canterbury promises to be nothing less than sensational.
This golden game emerging from the near chaos of pool play is, as one of Elvis Presley's Memphis mafia once said of a great rock and roll track in a maudlin ballad session, like "finding a cheese burger in a medicine chest".
We'll be seeing two teams who are capable of running a try in from anywhere, with attacking skills most international coaches in the world would be delighted to see in their teams.
And Canterbury fans will be seeing their heroes playing the team, in Auckland, that ignites local passions like no other.
Brilliant running rugby in the weekend started in the championship semis in Dunedin and Pukekohe. The second-half display by Counties-Manukau was so dazzling it wouldn't have been more spectacular if they'd added fireworks and lion tamers.
But when it came to nerve-tingling moments it was impossible to go past the remarkable extra-time victory by Canterbury over Taranaki.
Robbie Fruean has sometimes seemed too sunny natured a person to make full use of his massive frame and explosive speed.
But when he returned to the field during extra time we all got a look at what he's like when he's angry, and, sure enough, Taranaki tacklers found they didn't like him at all.
To win against a Taranaki side full of grit and edge, Canterbury not only needed men like Fruean, but also men like Andy Ellis, who for 100 minutes was snapping right at the heels of his forwards when, by rights, he should have been desperately looking for an oxygen mask, and men like George Whitelock, who plays in the way boring old guys at footy clubs claim every forward in the 1950s did, with his head down, his bum up, and never, ever, heading in any direction except forward.
Taranaki's coach Colin Cooper took a chance by selecting a monster pack with two regular locks, Craig Clarke and Jason Eaton, and two more, James Broadhurst and Jarrad Hoeata, smuggled onto the field in the loose forward trio.
In theory the emphasis on the "Bigfoot" brigade should have seen Taranaki struggling to attack with the ease of a leaner, apparently quicker, team in red and black.
In fact, in the second half, Taranaki ran the ball with such sharpness and accuracy, there was every chance the game might have been won. But carrying upwards of 120kg for 80 minutes involving numerous collisions at speed, and doing it well, is one thing. An extra 20 minutes proved a lung-burning, leg-dragging bridge too far.
The game in Wellington didn't catch fire until the second half, but it never lacked for exciting players.
One was Wellington hooker Dane Coles. He's so seriously fast he often embarrasses backs who are chasing him, scuttling over the ground with his legs whirring so quickly you wouldn't be surprised if he left two perfectly rotary hoed furrows in the turf behind him.
And, in the course of yet another of his stellar games this season, there was one effort from Auckland fullback Charles Piutau so brilliant you needed replays to believe your own eyes.
A high kick landing on his own side of halfway left him a fraction short of a clean take, so he slid into the ball on his knees, used his own momentum to rise back up running, and darted 30 metres to set up a move that was just one held pass away from a try.
Piutau, who only turns 21 at the end of the month, will surely wear an All Black jersey in the not too distant future.
What evil, alien spirit invaded the mind and body of Beauden Barrett when he made his weird late tackle on Andy Ellis in Christchurch? The timing was bad enough, but it was also an illegal shoulder charge.
We've become accustomed to mad moments like this from Bakkies Botha, but not from an innocent-faced first-five.
Sunday Star Times