After a sluggish start, Super Rugby Pacific has hit its straps over the past few weeks, with the reconnection of the entire competition adding the spark many thought had been missing.
And, in a good result for Australian rugby, it hasn't been a complete whitewash by the New Zealand teams, with both the Brumbies and Waratahs impressing in cross-country play.
With just three weeks of the regular season to go, we've dug out the crystal ball to predict how things might fall over the closing rounds, settling on a final make-up of the top eight.
Read on as we analyse each team's run home and their predicted ladder finish.
BLUES - 1ST
Run home: Reds [H], Brumbies [A], Waratahs [A]
Leon MacDonald's team underlined their tag as competition favourites with a thumping 71-28 hammering of the Rebels last week, improving their record to 10-1 for the season - it seems a long time ago that they were stunned by Ardie Savea's late try in Round 2 of the competition. Crucially for the Blues, they are also starting to welcome back players from injury, with Akira Ioane the latest to return last week against the Rebels. The Blues have tremendous depth in both the backs and forwards, and could really not be in a better position to back up their 2021 Super Rugby Trans-Tasman triumph with more silverware.
The one thing going against the Blues is that they have the toughest run in of any of the New Zealand teams, facing the clear Australian frontrunners over the next three weeks. They should be far too strong for the Reds - who are without Taniela Tupou and Fraser McReight - but matches against the Brumbies and Waratahs are no certainties, particularly their trip to Canberra next week.
Predicted points finish: 55 [First]
BRUMBIES - 2ND
Run home: Crusaders [H], Blues [H], Moana Pasifika [A]
Any lingering doubts over the Brumbies' title claims were smashed to pieces as Dan McKellar's side rumbled to a 38-28 win over the Chiefs in Hamilton - and the match wasn't as close as the scoreline suggests. What McKellar has got right this year, as opposed to 2021, is the superb management and rotation of his playing squad, which was clearly primed to have the Brumbies hitting their straps when the trans-Tasman action arrived. The Brumbies have immense depth in the pack - their options at hooker are the envy of the competition - while the return of Noah Lolesio has coincided with some of the team's best attack of the season.
Three from three against Kiwi opposition to date, the Brumbies' two biggest challenges still lie ahead, the big positive being that they confront both the Crusaders and Blues on home soil. The Brumbies are exuding confidence, and will only be further buoyed by news both Lolesio and co-captain Nic White have both re-signed for next season. However, Lolesio will miss this week's game against the Crusaders while Rob Valetini is also out injured with a hamstring strain. While Lolesio will return next week, the in-form Valetini is likely to be out multiple weeks.
Predicted points finish: 53 [2nd]
CRUSADERS - 3RD
Run home: Brumbies [A], Drua [H], Reds [H]
Perennial contenders, it says everything about the Crusaders that we feel as though they haven't quite been at their best, yet they are still right in the hunt for another title. They have suffered three defeats this season, two of which have surprisingly come at home, while a shock loss to the Waratahs 10 days ago left a sour taste in coach Scott Robertson's mouth after he had been told to rest Richie Mo'unga. But the Crusaders bounced back last week in Perth, despite losing four players pre-match to COVID, putting the Force to the sword with Leicester Fainga'anuku and Will Jordan both scoring hat-tricks.
After almost a month in Australia, the Crusaders have just one match to go before they can return to the comforts of home. And it looms as an even bigger test than their misstep in Sydney in Round 11, with the Brumbies riding a wave of confidence that hasn't been felt in the capital for some time. One of the great rivalries from the 26 years of Super Rugby, these two teams have played out some absolute classics. Win on Friday night, and Robertson's side will be right back in the frame for a top-two finish. From there they are proven finals performers.
Predicted points finish: 52 [third]
CHIEFS - 4TH
Run home: Rebels [A], Force [H], Drua [A]
The Chiefs have shown they can mix it with the best in Super Rugby Pacific this year, having beaten the Crusaders in Christchurch and earlier found themselves in a position to defeat the Blues in Auckland with a post-siren penalty. Unfortunately, Bryn Gatland's attempt drifted wide, but there has been more than enough since then to suggest they are capable of challenging for the title. That was until last weekend, when the Chiefs were so effectively shut down by the Brumbies, Clayton McMillan's side forced to chase a game they never really looked like winning. Injuries to Brodie Retallick and Anton Lienert-Brown have certainly stifled the Chiefs' progress.
While the weekend's loss to the Brumbies will have stung, the Chiefs' run home is perhaps the friendliest of any team hunting a top four berth and home quarterfinal. The potential banana skin game looks to be their regular-season finale against the Drua in Lautoka, where a passionate home Fijian crowd will be doing everything it can to will its team to victory. Still, the Chiefs should bounce back with three straight wins to finish the year - and that will be enough to earn a home final in Hamilton.
Predicted points finish: 45 points [4th]
WARATAHS - 5th
Run home: Hurricanes [H], Highlanders [A], Blues [H]
The surprise packets of 2022, the Waratahs continue to go from strength to strength under Darren Coleman. After dropping two of their first three games, the Waratahs found some momentum in the remainder of their Aussie derbies, only for two cards inside 15 minutes to hand the Chiefs a significant advantage in their Super Round clash. But any thought that defeat would derail what was then a promising rebuild was dismissed by their best performance under Coleman to date: the 24-21 victory over the Crusaders. NSW then backed that up a week later, recovering from a 17-0 deficit to run down Moana Pasifika and then hold on at the death. The combination of some returned veterans, coupled with the youth that did it so tough last year, have the Waratahs headed in the right direction.
Despite their successes of the past two weeks, the Waratahs still face an uphill battle if they're to reach their new goal of a home quarterfinal. First up, the Hurricanes will be no easy nut to crack as NSW attempt to "Fill the Hill" at Leichhardt Oval, before they head to Dunedin for a date with the desperate Highlanders, and then return to Sydney again to face the Blues who might just need the win to secure top spot for the playoffs. Given what lies ahead, Saturday night's game against the Hurricanes takes on massive importance. Win and their confidence will grow, but lose and it could be the beginning of a rough finish to the regular season. Michael Hooper is still sidelined by concussion, too.
Predicted points finish: 38 points [6th]
REDS - 6TH
Run home: Blues [A], Moana Pasifika [H], Crusaders [A]
Having suffered only one defeat across their Australian derbies, everything appeared rosy for the Reds ahead of their Super Round clash with the Hurricanes. Things looked pretty good for the first 20 minutes of that match, too, as the Reds opened up a 17-0 lead and looked to be well on their way to a trans-Tasman win. But from the moment they failed to play the whistle, and Bailyn Sullivan sprinted away to score, things have gone from bad to worse for the Reds who have now dropped three straight. Brad Thorn's team have been in a position to win each game, but last week's finish and eventual loss to the Highlanders will have been particularly deflating.
While the Reds have a tough finish to the regular season, there is some good news at Ballymore after James O'Connor was named to make his return against the Blues on Saturday. The playmaker's return is ahead of schedule, and particularly timely, as Queensland have struggled with the unfamiliar Lawson Creighton at 10. That is no fault of the youngster's, skipper Tate McDermott says, but rather his teammates not doing enough to support him. While O'Connor's return should coincide with greater game plan control and direction, it's hard to see them beating either of the Blues or Crusaders away. The push for a home quarterfinal looks to have passed them by.
Predicted points finish: 37 [7th]
HURRICANES - 7th
Run home: Waratahs [A], Rebels [H], Force [A]
The Hurricanes have been one of the more difficult teams to get a read on this season, Jason Holland's team having mixed a victory over the Blues with the only loss to Moana Pasifika of any team to date. They have also had to shuffle their matchday 23s because of injury, and COVID, with the club having used 50 players this season, nine of whom are hookers. Holland has also experimented with the switch to inside centre for Jordie Barrett, though it is the No. 10 position, and whom best fits it, that remains the Hurricanes' big problem.
Currently at 2-1 in trans-Tasman play, including last week's thumping of the Drua, the Hurricanes have the ability to win each of their three remaining games before the finals and finish as high as fifth. Certainly Saturday's game against the resurgent Waratahs is their toughest challenge, although the Wellington-based side has enjoyed success in Sydney in recent years. Beyond that, the Hurricanes should have too much firepower for both the Rebels and Force, giving them handy momentum ahead of the quarterfinals when they will be on the road once more.
Predicted points finish: 39 [fifth]
HIGHLANDERS - 8TH
Run home: Force [H], Waratahs [H], Rebels [A]
It proved to be a tough start to Super Rugby Pacific for the Highlanders, who had to wait until Round 7 to get their first win of the competition, which eventually came against Moana Pasifika. Unlike last year, coach Tony Brown held back from making the bullish statement that his team would beat each of the Aussie franchises - in which he was eventually proved correct - probably because the Highlanders had the Brumbies in Super Round. But since that defeat, the Highlanders have picked up two tough road wins against the Drua and the Reds, with back-up scrum-half Folau Fakatava turning in a particularly eye-catching cameo off the bench last week.
With the Rebels and Force nipping at their heels - the Perth outfit also having a game in hand - the next two weeks at home in Dunedin are particularly pivotal for the Highlanders. If they can avoid getting bogged down by the dogged Force, the Highlanders should have too many points in them on Friday night, setting up a huge clash with the Waratahs in Round 14. If they win both of those matches, then the final round clash with the Rebels in Melbourne would be largely academic, though a fourth straight victory would be a huge boost in confidence ahead of what will be a quarterfinal away from home.
Predicted points finish: 30 [8th]
REBELS - 9TH
Run home: Chiefs [H], Hurricanes [A], Highlanders [H]
The Rebels made a terrible start to 2022 under Kevin Foote, but eventually started to settle into the coach's new framework to pick up wins over the Drua and Force, and then again a fortnight ago against Moana Pasifika. But that result was wedged between two hammerings by the Crusaders and Blues, last week's first-half defensive capitulation showing just how far the Rebels are off the pace.
With two games at AAMI Park to come over the next three weeks, the Rebels remain in the hunt for eighth spot. But they will certainly need to show far greater defensive resilience than that which they demonstrated at Eden Park. While the Force and Waratahs could do the Rebels a favour to halt the Highlanders' recent progress, it's hard to see the southerners dropping both of those games at home. For their part, it's going to take a real form reversal for the Rebels to sneak into the playoffs.
Predicted points finish: 16 points [9th]
FORCE - 10TH
Run home: Highlanders [A], Chiefs [A], Moana Pasifika [A], Hurricanes [H]
The Force made a promising start to the season, pushing the Brumbies all the way in Canberra before they put wins over the Rebels and Drua on the board. But they then slumped to a succession of defeats, which now extends to five matches following last week's loss to the Crusaders. Tim Sampson's side have been largely gallant all season, but have lacked that little bit of polish and class inside the attacking 22.
Western Australia's COVID surge finally caught up with the Force, unfortunately at the untimeliest moment just a couple of days out from Super Round. What was a match on neutral turf is now a trip to Auckland to face Moana Pasifika, meaning the Force will be on the road for the next three weeks. There is some solace in the fact they can remain in New Zealand for the three-game stretch, but games against the Highlanders and Chiefs over the next 10 days will likely bring an end to the Force's season, making their Round 15 clash against the Canes little more than a farewell for Sampson.
Predicted points finish: 16 points [10th]
FIJIAN DRUA - 11th
Run home: Moana Pasifika [H], Crusaders [A], Chiefs [H]
It's been a tough initiation for the Drua, who have just one win to show from their inaugural season so far. They have shown flashes of attacking brilliance, winger Vinaya Habosi a standout, but have lacked the Super Rugby reps and set-piece quality needed to challenge opposition on a consistent basis. Their maiden home game on Fijian soil was however a competition highlight, despite the fact they were eventually run down by the Highlanders.
While the Drua remain a mathematical chance of reaching the finals, their season is really about pride from here. Saturday's game against Pasifika at CommBank promises to be a wonderful occasion, with the various cultures coming together in western Sydney, so too their second game on Fijian soil, this time against the Chiefs in Lautoka. But things could get ugly the week prior in Christchurch and the Chiefs won't want to drop any momentum ahead of the playoffs, so it looks like two wins, at best, for the Drua in their first Super Rugby season.
Predicted points finish: 9 [12th]
MOANA PASIFIKA - 12TH
Run home: Drua [A], Reds [A], Force [H], Brumbies [H]
Super Rugby's other expansion team have done it tough this season, with COVID proving a huge disruption to the early part of their campaign. The virus postponed three of their first four matches, prompting a schedule redraft that saw Pasifika forced to play multiple midweek catch-up games. They were then the unlucky ones to catch the Force on the week when WA's COVID outbreak hit the Perth-based franchise. Pasifika's maiden victory over the Hurricanes, which came in golden point, remains one of the moments of the year.
It's a busy schedule for Pasifika to finish the season, with their catch-up game against the Force slotted in between Rounds 14 and 15. That looks like an excellent opportunity to snatch a second win, so too their much-anticipated clash with the Drua this Saturday. Victories in both games would make it three wins from their first season in Super Rugby, which is a better first-year return than many other previous expansion outfits.
Predicted points finish: 15 [11th]