OPINION: Now it gets interesting as we switch back to Super Rugby mode for the most important three rounds of the season for our teams still with finals ambitions.
Usually at the business end of the season it's teams with momentum that come out on top. But this competition is different. After the best part of a month off, it's all about regaining momentum for those in the playoff picture.
With home ground advantage so crucial, the performances of the Chiefs and Bulls over the next three weeks become so much more important. Both are in the box seat for home semifinals if they're good enough from here.
Let's look at the Chiefs. They've been New Zealand's most consistent side to date and have developed their game on both sides of the ball, though not necessarily at the same time.
The international window couldn't have come at a better time for the defending champions, given the length of their injury list. A planned trip to Argentina cancelled means they've had a chance to mend broken bodies and approach the business end of the season with a mostly complete and confident roster.
That confidence comes on the back of the Chiefs' best players being instrumental in the All Black environment.
So now their challenge is to quickly re-establish their form and with only Kiwi derbies to come, they will need to be on top of their game.
With the Bulls hard on their heels with three games to go, there is no room for complacency.
The Crusaders have everything to play for. They have been possibly the most frustrating of teams this season, and although they've struggled to find their attacking prowess, they have been as resilient as any of their predecessors.
We should get an early idea how switched on the red and blacks are with a difficult first game against the Highlanders in Dunedin. They can't take anyone for granted and must make a seamless transition off the break.
If there's a benefit of playing New Zealand sides, it's that if successful they can be great confidence boosters. With the quality of players the Crusaders have, if they find their attacking edge and maintain their standards on defence they could end up in the right frame of mind come the knockout stages.
Some key players will be instrumental in making this happen. If Israel Dagg brings his confidence back, if Robbie Fruean finds his, and if Dan Carter plays like the IRB player of year then expect the Crusaders to be right there.
What does success look like for the Blues? I'm not sure there was expectation in Sir John Kirwan's first season with this group of players to make the playoffs.
But they've given themselves an outside chance, even if the odds have stretched on the back of three straight defeats. The break also came at the perfect time given their young side had lost momentum and confidence against quality opposition.
With the Sharks and Cheetahs in South Africa and Chiefs back home it's unlikely they will sneak into the playoffs. But given they played neither the Kings nor Force, they've probably achieved more than most thought possible.
The Canes' season will be defined by how they perform over this closing stanza. If they roll the Highlanders and pick up a prized scalp of either the Crusaders or Chiefs they can reflect with some satisfaction.
Make no mistake, they're capable of doing it.
Jamie Joseph started thinking about next year a while ago. The challenge his Highlanders now face is establishing which players from this campaign will be part of it.
They showed what they're capable of against the Blues, so let's see if this group can finish the season with some pride restored.
- Sunday Star Times
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