Australian Super conference rises to the top
Local derbies have never been as important, or difficult to win, for Australia's Super Rugby teams - now the most competitive and evenly-matched in conference history.
A third of the way into this year's competition, Australia has turned its reputation as ''weak partners'' on its head.
Of the three national conferences, it's only the five teams Down Under which have a positive combined win-loss record.
The 15-12 record after round seven, at a 55 per cent success rate, trumps New Zealand's teams (12-1-14) and South Africa's quintet (14-1-15).
With the Brumbies and NSW Waratahs both entrenched in the top six, and the surprise-packet Western Force, Queensland Reds and Rebels not far behind, the general improvement has turned local derbies into must-win clashes.
Wallabies and Reds halfback Will Genia highlighted the souped-up challenge by rating Queensland's derby against the Force on Saturday night as their toughest of the season.
This is after they have already played the Brumbies, NSW and table-topping Sharks on the road.
But Reds hooker James Hanson, who knows a Suncorp Stadium win will pitch them into the top six, completely agrees.
''It's the tightest competition we've seen in a few years and these derby matches are crucial so we go into this week with the mindset that it's our biggest game,'' Hanson said.
''It changes the shape of the whole competition dramatically.''
Statistics show that since Super 14 became a three-conference, 15-team competition in 2011, Australian sides have never been so tough as a group.
Added to improved ladder standings and tight derby results, they boast an impressive 7-4 record over foreign rivals.
It's particularly been the improvement of the Force (3-2) and Rebels (2-3) - who upset last year's finalists Chiefs and Brumbies, respectively, in their last starts - that has turned the tide.
In previous seasons, Kiwis and South Africans whinged that top Aussie teams gained a leg-up by beating up on their struggling compatriots in their extra derby matches.
''While you'd like easy games, there isn't one,'' Hanson said.
''We've copped a fair bit of criticism as a pool before but we've changed that this year.''