Australian teams face crunch time as Super Rugby Pacific finals loom on horizon
Super Rugby Pacific is building nicely towards its crescendo, and all five Australian sides are still well and truly in the hunt for a play-off berth with three rounds of the competition to play.
In the case of the Brumbies, the Waratahs and the Reds, the stakes remain high with all three eyeing off top-four finishes.
The Brumbies sit second on the table and could even finish the home-and-away rounds as minor premiers.
The eight-team finals format was criticised when first announced, with two thirds of the competition being eligible, but with no positions decided with three games to go there is no question the anticipation and intrigue around the run to the play-offs has built as the season has played out.
There are a host of games in each round to play — at least four in this weekend's round 13 — that will impact positions on the table as the finals near, and it is possible at this stage that both the top four and the broader top eight will not be decided until the final round in a fortnight.
With the much-improved showing from the Australian sides against New Zealand opposition in 2022, it feels like the competition has taken on new life in the back half of the season.
The top two could be decided over the next two games, with the Brumbies hosting the third-placed Crusaders and first-placed Blues on consecutive weekends at Canberra Stadium.
There is a feeling Friday night's clash against the Crusaders might be the biggest game in Canberra since the 2020 Super Rugby AU final, with strong throwback themes to the glory days of the early 2000s when the the two sides seemed to face off in finals and semi-finals annually.
Pies and buckets of chips have been slashed back to 2004 prices for the game, a nod to the year the sides played out an epic final on front of a then-record Canberra Stadium crowd.
Roadside "Vote 1 Brumby Jack" corflutes are certainly standing out amid an election campaign that people can't wait to see end.
"There's no harder task than going up against the Crusaders, so we can't get carried away with ourselves," Brumbies prop James Slipper said in Canberra this week.
Slipper will play his 50th match for the Brumbies this week, after relocating from Queensland at the start of the 2019 season.
Having chalked up 150 Super Rugby games only recently, he knows enough about the Crusaders from his days at the Reds.
"They're a team that really crucify you if you make mistakes," Slipper said.
"Limiting their opportunities is going to be key for us, and that's us executing under pressure and taking big moments in the game, because those opportunities will come. It's up to us whether we want to take them or not.
"We're just going to have to be big in the collision area and at [the] set-piece."
That has certainly been true of late, with the Brumbies' set-piece being their literal foundation to play from since losing to the Reds back in round eight.
Brumbies skipper Allan Ala'alatoa is back after missing a few games, but the scrum has remained strong without him.
Their line-out drive has returned to its most lethal routes with five rolling-maul tries in the last four games.
Their depth and rotations will be tested however, with Noah Lolesio and Rob Valetini both ruled out this week.
Waratahs chasing home final
The Waratahs, fifth on the table, have a similar record to the fourth-placed Chiefs. They knocked off the Crusaders before beating Moana Pasifika in Auckland last weekend and are growing in confidence.
Saturday night's match-up with the Hurricanes is a mouth-watering one and hopes of another massive home crowd on the Leichhardt Oval hill await.
The Waratahs have the Highlanders and Blues to follow and are very much eyeing off a top-four finish with the view that hosting a quarter-final at home gives them a definite edge.
"I think it's critical to our season," Wallabies and New South Wales prop Angus Bell said this week.
"We said a few weeks ago we were looking down the ladder this year but now we're looking up. We want to see how far we can go and how deep we can get into this competition.
"We think that getting a home final at Leichhardt or somewhere in Sydney would give us the best opportunity to do that.
"We're really pushing hard for that top-four spot and we're really looking forward to the challenges ahead."
It's much the same story in Queensland, where the Reds are desperate to turn around three straight losses since the start of the trans-Tasman section of the competition.
They are still only one point off the Chiefs after their strong start to the season. A home final is still in their crosshairs.
Playing the table-topping Blues in Eden Park in Auckland looms as about as big a challenge as there is in Super Rugby Pacific this season, but having Wallabies fly-half James O'Connor back in the Queensland number 10 jersey will certainly help.
"We haven't won there for 10 years," Reds captain Tate McDermott said in Brisbane.
"It's a really good opportunity. We've got a three-week block here leading into the finals, which we will be a part of, but for us it's about where we want to play that play-off match, really.
"It doesn't get any easier. We've had to get back on the horse after the result on the weekend, so there's fair bit of motivation for us for this game."
All the Australian sides — the Western Force and Melbourne Rebels included — can have a positive impact on their ladder positions this weekend.
And if that's not enough to push fans along to the rugby this weekend, Slipper hopes the lure of canteen bargains might be enough.
"The Brumbies faithful really get behind us and we feel everything they give us, so if we can get as many out there as possible, to get some cheap pies and chips in, I'll join them after the game and tuck in as well," he said.