OPINION: The field has narrowed with four teams now confirmed in the playoffs.
The Chiefs are one point away from wrapping up the New Zealand conference title, while the Bulls are already kings of South Africa.
The Brumbies are the likely Australian conference winners though the Reds are an outside chance going into the final round in a fortnight's time.
Which leaves five teams - the Crusaders, Cheetahs, Blues, Sharks and Stormers - still mathematically in the hunt for the final two spots in the top six.
The Crusaders will book one berth if they can beat the Chiefs in Christchurch on Friday in what shapes as a massive local derby.
And the Cheetahs can kill two birds on Sunday morning when the play the Blues in Bloemfontein.
With four points to bank for the bye in the final round, the Cheetahs are effectively on 50 points. Hence they would confirm their place in the play offs with a win and end the Blues hopes at the same time.
The positive for the Blues is their fate remains in their hands, whereas the Sharks and Stormers must both rely on winning both of their matches with a bonus point as well as other teams losing.
The seventh placed Waratahs are out of the running because the Australian teams have just one match left to play.
The Hurricanes' loss to the Chiefs spelt the end of their playoff hopes though they cannot finish lower than their current position of 11th.
Player of the week
Robbie Fruean. The Crusaders centre didn't pull his boots on this week, but its time to acknowledge his courage in the face of adversity.
The former Wellingtonian will have heart surgery for the second time as Super Rugby reaches its final stages. How hard must it have been for Fruean to keep pushing himself under the duress of his failing health? How hard for him to hear criticism when he was battling against the odds?
Since being struck down as a 20-year-old Fruean has never once publicly used his condition as an excuse or asked for sympathy or special treatment. Not once has he chucked the towel in and for that he deserves our admiration.
Tom Marshall. The Crusaders wing's not the biggest or most powerful outside back doing the rounds, but he's one of the more rounded.
His performance against the Highlanders was a mixture of tenacity, good positional play and skill. Marshall gets in good positions in attack both in his support lines and ability to come off his wing and help out. He also chases kicks like a greyhound and applies pressure off the ball.
If Ma'a Nonu were actually a stock, his price would undoubtedly be falling after his Super Rugby season ended with a red card.
The big question now is where the talented midfielder will play next year? In a perfect world he'd return to Wellington, pull on a Hurricanes jersey and finish his career where his heart has always been.
There is little doubt his presence at second five eighth would be a good fit for Mark Hammett's side next year. However, professional rugby isn't perfect and neither is Nonu's Super Rugby record of late. Wherever he ends up, don't be surprised if the All Blacks second five-eighth's stocks rise sharply when the Rugby Championships kicks off.
Head to head
Aaron Cruden (Chiefs) v Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes)
Cruden gets the nod for his all round composure, but this was a cracking battle between two highly talented pivots. Barrett's ability to attack the line was the highlight of the first half.
With front foot ball he was the dominant attacking player on the field. But as Barrett's pack lost its grip up front, his influence understandably faded.
Cruden's experience came through at crucial times including a deft kick in behind for Bundee Aki's try, a well-timed intercept and some quality goal kicking to get his side home.
Chiefs: Gareth Anscombe (foot), Mahonri Schwalger (knee)
Crusaders: Owen Franks (infected elbow), Robbie Fruean (heart condition)
Blues: Piri Weepu (ribs), Chris Noakes (thigh), Keven Mealamu (calf)
Hurricanes: Tusi Pisi (hand), Andre Taylor (shoulder), Dane Coles (calf), Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (knee), Motu Matu'u (arm), Tim Bateman (knee)
Highlanders: John Hardie (knee)
Just an observation, but in between being brilliant in attack, have the Chiefs mastered the art of getting in the opposition's way at the back of the ruck?
Time and again this season Chiefs players leap around or over the edge of rucks, disrupt the halfback, then fawn innocence. Chiefs tacklers also tend to linger on the wrong side of the ruck as they roll away, while their clean out can tend to extend several metres beyond the ruck. Which is all a round about way of saying they have great coaches.
Blues coach John Kirwan must have exploded at his team's inability to clear pressure from their line in the dying minutes. First Luke Braid threw a needlessly careless pass on his goal line, then replacement halfback Jamison Gibson-Park ran 30 metres across his own try line rather than kicking the ball as far from it as possible.
The result was a hurried clearance, a quick lineout throw and the winning try to the Sharks. It was a pity because the Blues showed huge character to come back in this match. They were hammered at scrum time, under pressure in the lineouts and outmuscled around the rucks, but fought their way into a winning position.
All Blacks thought of the week
If there is a silver lining to the Highlanders horrible season, bit-part loose forward TJ Ioane might just be it. Of course it's too early to start talking the young man up as an All Black, but time and again Ioane has provided a talking point amongst the rubble of a loss.
Team Talk would love to see his line breaking statistics this season versus minutes played. The 24-year-old seems nigh impossible to stop at times against some very good defenders. After two caps for Wellington and 21 for Otago perhaps this slow burner is ready to ignite in a starting role next season?
Round 18 FORM XV
15 Israel Dagg (Crusaders)
14 Tom Marshall (Crusaders)
13 Conrad Smith (Hurricanes)
12 Francis Saili (Blues)
11 Hosea Gear (Highlanders)
10 Dan Carter (Crusaders)
9 TJ Perenara (Hurricanes)
8 Matt vant Leven (Chiefs)
7 Matt Todd (Crusaders)
6 Steven Luatua (Blues)
5 Brodie Retallick (Chiefs)
4 Craig Clarke (Chiefs)
3 Ben Afeaki (Chiefs)
2 James Parsons (Blues)
1 Ben Franks (Hurricanes)
- © Fairfax NZ News
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