Just four teams, three games and two weeks remain in the 2012 Super 15 season. That's right, it's semifinals time, and while it's been a great season to date, all that has happened now is irrelevant for those involved and it is the next two weeks that will determine how the season ends up.
This is the second year using the new top-six format, meaning trends are still yet to develop as to whether it's better to be one of the top two teams and have the week off, or if more game time is an advantage.
From that respect picking this weekend's winners isn't an easy task. But in any case, recent form suggests the top-two finishers may not be the favourites for this weekend and an upset or two could be on the cards.
Chiefs vs Crusaders
The first semifinal sees the Chiefs host the Crusaders in what has potential to be the game of the season. Both are capable of winning and it is truly going to be a case of who is the best team on the night.
The Chiefs have been the over-achievers of the year, topping the New Zealand conference and playing outstanding rugby for most of the season. In contrast, the Crusaders started slow as always, but have finally hit their straps and are playing the sort of rugby that has seen them win seven championships. The result is tantalising matchup that could go either way.
When the two sides last met three weeks ago, they had a titanic struggle characterised by a fast Crusaders start and then a furious fight back from the Chiefs. The Crusaders would emerge victorious by seven points, but the rugby played by both teams was perhaps the highest quality seen in the competition this year and made for arguably the game of the season.
Picking a winner this time around isn't any easier. What might be key is the momentum the Crusaders have gained in the past few weeks. Their forwards are bringing physicality to the game that the Chiefs will struggle with, and they have the backs to make them pay out wide. They have simply looked lethal, and even without captain Kieran Read are the in-form team of the competition.
And then there's the Chiefs. Arguably the form team of the competition. A solid platform up front built upon a solid front row, a hard-working second row and a dynamic loose forward trio, backed up with flair to burn in the backline. However, they're coming off two losses and a bye, meaning they bring no momentum whatsoever into this crunch game.
The battle up front will undoubtedly be telling, and the Crusaders will possibly have the edge here. But the other area to watch is the men in the No. 10 jerseys, with the old master Dan Carter toeing it with the new challenger Aaron Cruden—arguably the best player in the competition—but Carter is finding form at the right time and can single-handedly take over a game himself.
One thing that we can be sure of is that it will certainly be a game you won't want to miss.
Prediction: Crusaders by 6
Stormers vs Sharks
The second semifinal is an all-South African affair, as the top qualifying Stormers take on the sixth-placed Sharks. Don't let this fool you though, the Sharks are a team playing well above their seeding and are more than capable of topping the South African conference-winning Stormers.
For the Sharks, it is a case of getting over the travel that has come with being the bottom qualifying team, having had to travel to Australia and back in the past week.
This takes its toll, and will be a factor—it's hard enough playing a playoff game in another country, let alone having to fly to another and front up the next week. Just ask the 1999 Highlanders or the 2011 Crusaders, the only two teams faced with such a prospect in Super Rugby history. Just for the record, both teams lost on the return trip.
But it can be done. This is a Sharks team in form and playing with great confidence. They are built around an outstanding front row and a powerful loose forward trio. Bismarck du Plessis and Tendai Mtawarira have possibly been the best players in their positions this season, while Marcell Coetzee has been the find of the season. Their backs have looked slick too, with JP Pietersen in particular in career-best form.
In contrast, the Stormers are a team built around a strong defence, boasting by far and away the best record in the competition in this department. Tries don't come easy against this team. But they don't score a lot either.
Despite having the likes of Bryan Habana, Gio Aplon, Juan de Jongh and Jean de Villiers in their back line, they have scored the least tries and come in only 13th in points scored, ahead of only the lowly Lions and Force.
Like the Chiefs, they haven't looked as strong in recent weeks, with gaps beginning to open in their defence. When this happens it's hard to see them catching up, as they simply don't seem to have the ability to score a huge amount of points.
The Sharks are a team capable of getting a few early tries, particularly with the strength of their loose forwards, and if they can do this, they could very well find themselves in their fourth Super Rugby final.
But it won't be easy, the Stormers are a very tough team and despite a recent lapse in form remain the best defensive team in the competition.
Just like the first game, it really is a case of anything is possible.
Prediction: Sharks by 5