The 2014 Super Rugby season will enter its most enticing phase this weekend, where the post-season action picks up following on from another stellar campaign.
Saturday will see the Brumbies and Chiefs clash in Canberra for the right to play first-place finishers the Waratahs in the next round, before the Sharks and Highlanders meet in Durban, the Crusaders being their prospective semi-final opponents.
It's been a long season, but now the time comes for teams to produce at their optimum if they're to have a chance of 2014 glory, with details of Saturday's qualifying fixtures detailed ahead.
Brumbies vs. Chiefs
Date: Saturday, July 19
Time: 10:40 a.m. BST/5:40 a.m. ET
In a re-staging of last year's grand final, the Brumbies and Chiefs will once again do battle with the Super Rugby trophy in their sights, albeit on a slightly smaller scale this time around.
In 2013, it was the Chiefs who came out on top, but inconsistency has been plague on their 2014 campaign at times, losing three of their last five normal-season fixtures, saved by the latest revival in form, triumphing in their final two outings.
Opta's Russ Petty tells us that the second half will be a particularly intriguing one to watch in Canberra, where the New Zealand visitors tend to do a lot of their damage:
Chiefs scored approx 40% of their tries in final qtr of games this season, Brumbies conceded approx 55% in that period.— Russ Petty (@rpetty80) July 14, 2014
Chiefs have scored 17-20 points 2nd half in last 4 games vs Brumbies. Time of their 1st try in those games - 73,63,68 and 51st min.— Russ Petty (@rpetty80) July 14, 2014
Since winning the title last year, the Chiefs have lost a step in their momentum, winning only eight games compared to the 10 of Laurie Fisher's men.
The Brumbies came out as 41-23 victors when these two sides met at the GIO Stadium earlier this term, and have lost just one home game all season—to the Reds all the way back in February.
Prediction: Brumbies by 10
Sharks vs. Highlanders
Date: Saturday, July 19
Time: 4:05 p.m. BST/11:05 a.m. ET
The Bulls, Cheetahs, Lions and Stormers have all fallen by the wayside this season, leaving the Sharks to tussle it out as South Africa's only representatives in the post-season drama.
And they'll play hosts to the Highlanders on Saturday, with Alex Shaw of The Rugby Blog pointing out some significant personnel returns on behalf of the home side, which he assumes will see the Highlanders out of competition:
Tendai Mtawawira and Pat Lambie both expected to return for the Sharks against the Highlanders. Short playoff journey for the 'Landers...— Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport) July 16, 2014
Ironically enough, the Durban outfit suffered just two home losses in 2014, only one of which came against a team outside of South Africa—the Highlanders.
However, Jake White's outfit will be all the more wary of their opponents this time around, and they have a thriving number of players among their ranks who possess that will and winning mentality that often proves decisive at this phase of a term.
Prediction: Sharks by 5