We've officially set course for the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs, with six weeks of the regular season left to play.
Trans-Tasman play will at last recommence this weekend, and what better way to do it then with the inaugural Super Round, which will be staged at Melbourne's AAMI Park from Friday.
Read on as we discuss some of the big talking points in Australian and New Zealand rugby in this week's edition of Real or Not.
The five Australian Super Rugby teams are better placed to challenge their Kiwi rivals this year
Real. No one is foolish enough to suggest that, after registering just two victories in 25 games last year, that there is about to be a flood of Australian success when the trans-Tasman matches kick-off this weekend. But there is enough evidence to suggest that they can at least improve on that return, with even the Brumbies and/or the Reds capable of securing a home semifinal.
Following last year's Super Rugby AU season, there was a huge reality check for the five Australian sides. While the tournament had been a success off the field -- 40,000 fans piled into Suncorp Stadium for the final -- the step up in intensity, physicality and skill when they faced the New Zealand teams was telling. And they were found to be well off the pace. The Reds and Brumbies were also suffering badly with injury, so too a Waratahs team that was also devoid of experience following a number of high-profile departures. However, many of the youngsters who have been finding their feet at the professional level will be better served for the harsh experiences of last year.
Meanwhile in New Zealand, there is a clear gap between the Blues and Crusaders, and then the Chiefs, Highlanders and Hurricanes. It's reasonable to suggest the Blues and Crusaders will go undefeated throughout the remainder of the season, while the Chiefs are also capable of winning four out of five if they rediscover their best. But the Hurricanes and Highlanders have only shown sparing moments of absolute New Zealand quality, and look to be entirely beatable.
If the Australian teams can win a collective seven games in trans-Tasman play, that would be a credible result.
-- Sam Bruce
Tolu Latu can't be considered for Wallabies selection
Real: With the recent changes to Australia's Giteau Law, which opens the door for just three overseas based players to be selected for the Wallabies per series or tournament, Tolu Latu's chances of receiving a call-up were already massively reduced. But after an 11-week suspension for dangerous play, there's no way Dave Rennie can risk calling on the loose cannon for upcoming tournaments, especially next year's World Cup.
Latu's discipline has always been questionable with the hooker finding himself on the wrong side of the referee's whistle on many occasions. His volatile temperament has seen him find trouble many times on the field, while he's also seen plenty of off-field issues. He's earned himself several weeks on the sidelines over his nine-year career, including six weeks in 2019 for charging into a ruck, while he only recently served a one-week suspension following a double-yellow turned red for abusive language towards the ref and a dangerous clean-out.
His abysmal discipline has seen him receive eight cards of either colour across the top 14 and European Cup competitions this year, including six yellow, with his latest suspension ruling him out for the remainder of the season. Most worryingly, many of his cards can neither be excused away as a brain fade or poor execution, but cynical, dangerous play that needs to be stamped out of the game.
The most recent incident saw Latu take out the legs of Racing 92's Baptiste Chouzenoux who was leaping high in the air to take the ball, causing him to land on his neck. It was shocking and rightfully so resulted in a huge ban.
Only last year Wallabies coach Dave Rennie was forced to defend his decision to call up the hooker during the spring tour, but he won't want to face the same questions again this year. Given Latu has shown no signs of dropping his bad habits, Rennie simply cannot afford to scribble the hooker's name on his selection list.
-- Brittany Mitchell
Rugby Australia must move Dave Rennie on when his contract is up at the end of 2023
Not real. Last week's developments have put the position of Wallabies coach firmly in the spotlight once more, with Brad Thorn officially declaring his interest in one-day graduating to the Test arena. While it was once assumed he would fancy the All Blacks role given his status as a great of New Zealand rugby, he is adamant it's the Wallabies job that he covets. Given the thoughts of one Rugby Australia source, however, Thorn clearly has some changes to make in the way he conducts himself.
Meanwhile, Dan McKellar will graduate to the Wallabies environment fulltime at the end of this year's Super Rugby Pacific season, and many believe he is the natural successor to Rennie from there, despite the insistence otherwise from RA last week. But I don't see any reason why Rennie needs to be moved on after the World Cup if he, firstly, is doing a good job and, secondly, is keen to continue in the role - something he has already flagged.
In terms of performance, reaching the semifinals at the World Cup, at this stage, looks like a good result and anything beyond that would be a bonus. Rennie has also clearly built an excellent culture with this Wallabies group, earning the respect of the players he has under him.
Should he fancy facing the British & Irish Lions in 2025, and the team is playing well, I see no reason why he couldn't be extended through to that series. There may also be an opportunity to transition him into a Director of Rugby role, where he stays involved but hands over the day-to-day running of the role to someone else. If he was to win the World Cup, however unlikely that may be, then he will probably be in a position to write his own cheque [as much as RA finances allow anyway].
-- Sam Bruce