The NSW Waratahs and Crusaders are on course to clash in their third Super Rugby final in nine years.
Their old nemesis the Crusaders loom large once again as a major stumbling block between the NSW Waratahs and an historic first Super Rugby crown.
While Australian conference rivals the Brumbies and Western Force gear up for a cut-throat clash on Friday night in Canberra for a spot in the finals, the Waratahs are safely through to the second week of the playoffs after clinching their maiden minor premiership on Sunday.
The Waratahs’ stylish 44-16 victory against the Highlanders at Allianz Stadium also earned Michael Cheika’s side a franchise-record sixth successive win and outright title favouritism.
But if a derby against arch rivals Queensland on Saturday night isn’t enough to retain the Waratahs’ focus, the prospect of a likely final against the Crusaders surely will.
The Waratahs haven’t conquered the seven-time Super champions in a decade, losing their past 11 encounters either side of the Tasman – including the 2005 and 2008 championship matches – since last beating the Crusaders in the opening round in Sydney back in 2004.
The Sharks’ 27-20 loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein on Sunday morning has given the Crusaders the inside running to finish second overall with success against the Highlanders in Christchurch on Sunday.
With second place comes a priceless weekend off – like the Waratahs will enjoy – before a home sudden-death semi-final.
Given the Crusaders’ formidable home record and that NSW are unbeaten in Sydney in 2014, another grand final between the Waratahs and Cantabrians is very much on the cards.
The Jake White-coached Sharks, who face the Stormers in Cape Town in the final round, retain a four-point buffer over the chasing pack and are favoured to finish third.
But the remaining three playoff spots remain up for grabs, with six teams in a mad scramble to squeeze into the playoffs.
The Highlanders, on 42 points, are clinging to fourth place ahead of the Hurricanes (41), the Brumbies (40), Force (40) and defending champion Chiefs (40).
The losers of the Brumbies-Force showdown could still qualify if they pick up a bonus point and the Blues topple the Chiefs in Auckland by 38 points or less.
The Brumbies or Force could also lose next week and make the finals if they collect two bonus points by virtue of scoring at least four tries and lose by seven points or less.
The Hurricanes won’t receive any points for the bye in the last round and are sweating on a series of results to go their way in order to make the finals.
The Blues remain a mathematical hope but will only sneak into the playoffs if they smash the Chiefs by 39 points or more at Eden Park on Friday night.