Super Rugby is set for its most thrilling conclusion to the regular season in years with eight teams chasing the remaining four wildcard spots in the playoffs.
Last weekend's action began with a 24-all draw between the Highlanders and Bulls in Dunedin, the second straight deadlock for the Africans in New Zealand, while there were wins for the Reds, Crusaders, Brumbies, Hurricanes, Stormers and Jaguares.
The Brumbies and Jaguares joined the Crusaders as conference winners.
Read on for some of the key storylines from Round 17.
First-half onslaught evokes memories of Brumbies' golden years
Can the Rebels turn things around in six days? They'll have to or yet another season will have slipped away just when it looked the playoffs were a genuine possibility for the first time.
Given other results fell their way in Round 17, Saturday night's 66-0 horror show against the Crusaders in Christchurch has left Dave Wessels' side with largely the same assignment as the start of this week: Win one of their final two games and play finals for the first time. But just how they pick themselves up from an incompetent, at times comical, effort for the visit of the Chiefs is hard to envisage.
They will of course regain Will Genia, while Quade Cooper, who was yet again booed in New Zealand, will also likely return to the starting side for a showdown with former Rebels playmaker, Jack Debreczeni.
As for the booing of Cooper itself, Sky Sport commentators Tony Johnson and Justin Marshall agreed enough was enough, though one gets the feeling that if supporters were going to stop they would have already done so by now. Eight years and counting.
Ironically, the team that has topped the Australian conference and earnt a home quarterfinal in week one of the finals was twice beaten by the Rebels earlier this year. How, you ask? It's a fair question and an almost unfathomable case to make to someone who may missed the opening weeks of the season, but did happen to catch Saturday's game in Christchurch and the rugby clinic that followed in western Sydney afterwards.
The Brumbies' 35-24 defeat of the Waratahs may not appear the most comprehensive of performances but such was their brilliant first-half display that the game had indeed been won by halftime.
Four tries in 18 minutes did the damage but, better still, reflected the growth in the Brumbies' game that has been a work in progress for the best part of two years. Coach Dan McKellar has stuck to his guns in the face of some at times stinging criticism, and is now seeing his side flourish with the pointy end of the season just around the corner.
"We don't lose too much sleep about people getting into us about having a really good maul; I think what annoyed us at the time was probably just understanding the opposition and the tactics around it," McKellar said when asked whether negative comments about the Brumbies' play had actually helped his side.
"We'd just travelled the world, the Blues, we thought, were a little bit weak in that area, around maul defence, and we took them on there. And other areas of our game are now in a good place; we've worked hard on our attack for the last two years. I think our defence has been outstanding and we're getting opportunities off the back of our defence, off turnover attack. We're far from perfect but we're pleased with the direction our game is going."
While the strength of the likes of Rory Arnold and Tom Cusack -- the latter whose leadership McKellar later praised -- bookended the Brumbies' try-scoring against the Waratahs, and Folau Fainga'a had time to take his season tally to 11 with yet another rolling maul masterclass, it was the crisp passing that put Andy Muirhead and Irae Simone over that revived memories of the great Brumbies teams of the early 2000s.
For Muirhead's try, which the winger finished by barrelling over the top of likely Wallabies fly-half Bernard Foley, the Brumbies worked a slick scrum set-play that saw winger Toni Pulu run into a yawning gap and then offload to Tom Banks. Two phases later, Muirhead was over.
Simone's five-pointer may have just shaded it however, the inside centre starting and finishing a brilliant short-side exchange that eventually saw him step back inside Curtis Rona to touch down next to the left upright.
The only sore point for the Brumbies will be the fact that any extended run through the playoffs will likely have to be secured in Argentina. The Jaguares' comprehensive victory over the Sharks on Sunday morning [AEST] wrapped up second spot overall and means the Argentines will host a semifinal should they win through to week two of the playoffs.
The Brumbies came within five points of a win in Buenos Aires earlier this year, and they have improved considerably since then, so a rare postseason Super Rugby win on foreign soil should not be discounted.
There are two games to get through before that, however, and two more games to refine an attacking framework that is starting to invoke memories of names like Gregan, Larkham, Roff, Smith, Walker, Giteau and Co.
NEW ZEALAND CONFERENCE
Gutsy Hurricanes display gives Plumtree food for thought
No Beauden Barrett, no worries. That was the case for the Hurricanes in Johannesburg on Saturday night, at least, as they overcame the late scratching of their star fly-half to outclass the Lions 37-17.
A stomach bug kept Barrett from a Hurricanes victory that sewed up the first of five wildcard places in the playoffs, and a home quarterfinal for which they are richly deserving of.
If the form guide retains its integrity through to the semifinals, that will force the Hurricanes into another semi with the Crusaders in Christchurch. After the defending champions obliterated the Rebels 66-0 on Saturday, it's an assignment you wouldn't wish on even your fiercest of enemies.
But with the hard work done in Johannesburg, there may just be an opportunity for Hurricanes coach John Plumtree to freshen up a few more key players after the arduous trip home from Africa. Given they can neither climb nor fall on the ladder, would Plumtree be wise to give the likes of TJ Perenara and Ardie Savea the week off? World Cup hopeful Ngani Laumape is already due to have a rest.
It's understandable he may want to throw Barrett back into the frame, for 40 minutes at least, but in giving some other key All Blacks a spell Plumtree may see dividends in the postseason. It's worth considering the Crusaders have the Round 18 bye, before a quarterfinal with the lowest qualifier of the top eight. They should be primed for the semifinals, and have key troops returning, too.
The Crusaders' opening finals opponents could yet be the Chiefs, Highlanders, Bulls, Lions, Stormers, Sharks, Rebels or, mathematically, even the Waratahs, in what looms as a fascinating final round of the regular season.
The Highlanders will be lamenting their 24-all draw with the Bulls last Friday, a result that leaves them chasing a bonus-point victory against the Waratahs, and other results to fall their way, this weekend. They will however face a significantly understrength NSW team with Daryl Gibson confirming he would likely abide by the agreement with Michael Cheika and hand the likes of Michael Hooper, Bernard Foley, Sekope Kepu, Rob Simmons and Kurtley Beale another rest week.
What will count against the Highlanders is that they can only get to six wins on the season, a problem given that victories are the first tie-breaker for teams on the same number of points at the end of the season.
The Chiefs could get also get to 36 points with a bonus-point victory over the Rebels but the Waikato's franchise poor for-and-against could cost them, even though they would be on seven wins for the season.
Whatever the case, the Hurricanes can rest easy knowing they cannot be budged from fourth and will host a quarterfinal, most likely against a team that has had to travel all the way over to New Zealand from South Africa.
Plumtree's decision to bring Savea and hooker Dane Coles off the bench in Johannesburg proved a masterstroke at the weekend, and the coach may well benefit from another shift in selections thinking at home to the Blues this week.
There are clearly bigger games to come.
SOUTH AFRICAN CONFERENCE
Stormers' final quarter vs. Sunwolves encapsulates the South African season
The Stormers are in a playoffs position, with destiny in their own hands, and for that they should be applauded after their collection of four competition points against the Sunwolves at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday. Scrappy performance or not, it's certainly worth recalling the manner of their 40-3 humbling by the Bulls in Round 1 when considering where they sit right now.
Yes it was '"only the Sunwolves" who had lost five straight, including heavy blottings by the Highlanders and the Brumbies, to sit bottom of the overall standings with comfortably the worst record in the competition; but still that's the same "only the Sunwolves" who had defeated the Chiefs and the Waratahs away and who had pushed several other opponents including the Hurricanes; they were still opponents who could be dangerous if they got on a roll.
The Stormers achieved their victory without Siya Kolisi, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Skihumbuzo Notshe and Damian Willemse, who were all injured, and Damian de Allende, who was rested in accordance with the Springboks management policy; that's a substantial loss of talent and knowhow, but still the game was in their control for much of the 80 minutes. Cause for celebration.
Of course, the performance was patchy and riddled with errors. But they got the win, albeit without a bonus point, that has them going into their home fixture in the final round against the Sharks in a playoffs berth and having destiny in their own hands; that is as much as they could have hoped for after their aforementioned drubbing by the Bulls in the opening round.
For all that, the Stormers have the coming weekend to look forward to - at what will hopefully be a heaving Newlands, where the locals will be seeking a victory that confirms postseason action while denying the Sharks a playoff berth, and also claiming some kind of 'revenge' for the Sharks' defeat of Western Province in the Currie Cup final at the same venue last year - their final 20 minutes against the Sunwolves perhaps represented the worst of their campaign -- and perhaps also the campaign of all South African teams -- in microcosm.
There is 20 minutes of play they should be looking over this week as they prepare to face the Sharks.
They entered the quarter holding the bonus point having scored three tries to none at that point; they were then outmanoeuvred far too easily before impressive Sunwolves fullback Semisi Masirewa ran a beautiful line to cut past his counterpart, the no less impressive Dillyn Leyds, for a try.
Leading by eight points and needing another try to reclaim the bonus point that could yet prove crucial in deciding the playoff berths, they elected to kick a penalty goal rather than putting the ball into the corner for an attacking lineout from which to launch a driving maul or something altogether more exotic. Three points extended the margin, but the decision to kick for goal was surely muddle-headed and illustrative of the lack of clear thinking under pressure that has afflicted all the South African sides on occasion this season.
Jaco Coetzee crashed over eight minutes later, from a drive, to reclaim the bonus point, only for the Stormers to prove unable once again to halt a slick Sunwolves counter from deep that Masirewa capped with another try. The most worrying aspect of the Stormers' play here was not that they could not shut the game down, but rather they gave the impression of having relaxed after their try thinking the job was done. Having conceded the try, they then ambled back to the restart - not with a sense of poised composure in thinking that they had a four minutes still to play but rather with a sense that they weren't actually thinking.
Then came the final minutes after the kick-off in which the Stormers threw the kitchen sink at their opponents only to see their hopes of the bonus point crash and burn in a knock-on from which the visitors launched one final dangerous counter.
That final play almost seemed to encapsulate the season: Great effort undone by a lack of accuracy in the skill-sets and execution in the play under pressure. Still, at least they're in a position - as are their domestic rivals the Bulls, Lions, Sharks - of knowing that victory in a derby fixture next week will see them playing finals football; more than that, there will be no need for any of the teams to seek a bonus-point win as they each know that a simple victory will see them in the finals.
If there wasn't so much to celebrate in South African rugby over the weekend, then there was plenty to celebrate in the South African Super Rugby Conference.
The Jaguares produced a stunningly clinical performance to dispatch the Sharks; or should that be a clinically stunning performance? For as much as the Sharks were awful in Buenos Aires, their insipid performance cannot be used in any manner to diminish the value of their hosts' efforts in scoring a five tries-to-one 34-7 victory.
Much as the Crusaders were overwhelmingly too good in humbling the Rebels 66-0 in Christchurch, the Jaguares delivered a similar statement that they, too, are major title players. Another performance of this ilk at home to the Sunwolves in the final round of the home and away next week will almost certainly deliver another bonus-point victory that will secure second place on the overall log. From there, few will bet against them with homefield advantage in the quarterfinals and semifinals; and from there, should they proceed, they'll be genuinely tough final adversaries for anyone at home or away.