The heat is on for NZ Super Rugby franchises
Glass half-full or half-empty? There's definitely contrasting ways to look at the chances of New Zealand's Super Rugby dominance continuing as the competition hits the last fortnight of the regular season.
The more optimistic types might like to point to the fact that all five Kiwi franchises still have a shot at a top-six finish, and that there's a reasonable opportunity there for three New Zealand teams to make the post-season.
That's two reasons to feel good about what shapes as an intriguing final fortnight of the season proper, with the Kiwi conference as crowded, and about as unruly, as Auckland's motorways in rush hour.
The Crusaders and Highlanders share top billing on 42 points, the Hurricanes are tucked in behind them on 41 and the Chiefs and Blues both have an outside shot on 36 points. All, bar the Canes, have two games left and a potential 10 points to accumulate.
As a rough guide, something like 45 points is more than likely to get you into the top six. Maybe even 44. When you consider the second placed Aussie outfit (the Brumbies) are on 40 points with just one game remaining and their equivalents in South Africa (the Bulls) have just 33 points with two matches up their sleeve, those "next three" finishing positions are there for the taking.
All good so far from a New Zealand perspective. But there is a downside.
After a weekend where conference leaders the Crusaders more or less imploded in Wellington and back-to-back champs the Chiefs got a severe case of the wobbles in Dunedin, you can make a case that no Kiwi team is playing anywhere near well enough to win this damn thing.
The Crusaders had looked the best positioned post the June break to grab not only the conference winner's spot, but possibly even the all-important home finals advantage as one of the top two finishers.
But Saturday's off-key effort in the capital now has the seven-time champs back in the bunch, scrapping just to make the post-season, let alone to play it at home. And with some bizarre selections, untimely injuries and dramatic form slumps in the Shaky City there's no sign of a swagger from a team that hasn't won this championship since 2008.
The Highlanders are the only other Kiwi team capable of getting up among the 50-plus points required to host a major semifinal - but their finish of the Waratahs and Crusaders both away is brutal. One from two would be a dream result for the southerners who continue to over-achieve in a big way.
The Canes will get to 45 or 46 points if they can beat the Chiefs in Hamilton on Friday night in what's essentially a knockout match. From where they've been this season, just getting to the playoffs would be bonus territory.
The Chiefs and Blues have to be perfect from here on, and in a funny sort of way Sir John Kirwan's Aucklanders might have the best chance of doing so.
The Blues had one of those finally nights in Perth on Saturday. They finally won on the road, thumping the Force 40-10; they finally delivered on their undoubted potential; and they finally gave their long-suffering fans a glimmer of hope.
They now face a tricky visit to Christchurch against a Crusaders outfit whose pride took a serious hit in the capital. That was a sub-par effort all round at the worst possible time and it's hard to see how the Saders aren't in serious bounce-back mode this week.
Whether that's enough against a Blues side that's finally laid to rest its road bogey remains to be seen. If the likes of Jerome Kaino, Patrick Tuipulotu and Ma'a Nonu continue to provide the physicality and ferocity and the Auckland franchise's long list of X-factor men are able to wield their influence, a la Perth, a mighty battle is in prospect.
The Chiefs' shot at the threepeat now hangs by a thread. To beat the Canes they're going to have to find a level they haven't hit since early-May, and then back it up a week later at Eden Park. You wouldn't count them out, but it looks highly unlikely on what we've seen of late.
History tells us that home advantage is king at finals time. The Crusaders in 2000 are the only team in 18 seasons to have won the title offshore, and the last six champions have played the final on their home turf.
That looks ominous from a Kiwi perspective. The Waratahs, on 48 points, are now in the box seat to finish No 1 qualifier and the Sharks (45) look the only side capable of hauling them in. That means the road to the title is likely to run through either Sydney or Durban, or both.
New Zealand teams have won 12 of the 18 Super Rugby titles decided thus far. If that's to become 13 in 2014, it's going to need something special over the next five weeks. Let the scramble begin.
Crusaders (42pts): v Blues (h); v Highlanders (h).
Highlanders (42): v Waratahs (a); v Crusaders (a).
Hurricanes (41): v Chiefs (a).
Chiefs (36): v Hurricanes (h); v Blues (a).
Blues (36) v Crusaders (a); v Chiefs (h).