With the Super Rugby Finals Series teams decided in the penultimate week of the Regular Season, there is now only position to play for within the top six.
This week, we take a look at where the strengths of each team lie, and why they have risen to the top of the pile this season.
Chris Boyd’s men have undoubtedly been the team to beat in this year’s competition but they will know that anything can happen in the Finals Series. However, their fine form has been backed up by some incredible statistics, with the 'Canes leading the way when it comes to carries, metres gained, clean breaks and defenders beaten.
The Wellington-based side has also created a strong platform upon which to build, as they also boast the best scrum success this season, retaining 96 per cent of their put-ins and while their lineout hasn’t been quite as stable as the scrum, they have forced their opponents into winning just 78 per cent of their throws - a league-low.
Individually, the 'Canes have plenty of players capable of giving the side an extra spark when they need it most. Only Damian de Allende and Israel Folau have beaten more defenders than Julian Savea (50), with the All Black having played two games fewer than both players, and the winger has also made the third most clean breaks this season.
Elsewhere, leading try-scorer TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett have steered the ship well and shown a solid all-round game this season and in the pack Ardie Savea has been the team’s top turnover winner (14), while proving devastating with ball in hand too.
Last year’s champions have kept their points tally ticking over nicely this season. Despite not stringing together a run of more than three wins in a row at any point this season, they have not lost back to back games either, bouncing back from each of their five defeats with a win. Similar to the Hurricanes, the 'Tahs excel with ball in hand gaining the third most metres and clean breaks this season and beating the second most defenders, while making the second most offloads.
It’s easy to understand why the Waratahs rank so highly with ball in hand when they boast players such as Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale and Bernard Foley. Folau has gained almost 300 metres more than any other player (1467), beaten an incredible 63 defenders and made more offloads than anyone else (36), with Beale ranking second in that regard (30) and Will Skelton not too far behind either (24).
The Stormers have been solid this year and have really upped their game since round nine when they defeated the current champions in their own backyard. Including that result, the Stormers have won six and drawn one of their last eight in a run that has seen the side charge to the top of the South African Conference.
They lead the way this season when it comes to taking their chances in front of goal, boasting the best kick success rate - Demetri Catrakilis has the best success rate of any player to attempt at least 10 shots at goal this year (57/64 - 89 per cent).
Other individuals have stood out too, with De Allende being the pick of the bunch. No player has beaten more defenders this season (64) while his ability to offload when he is tackled means he has been a constant threat and one of the Stormers’ key men in attack.
The Chiefs are still yet to hit the heights they reached in 2012 and 2013, however their recent Super Rugby wins will leave them unfazed when it comes to the pressure of the Finals Series. The Chiefs current standing of fourth looks about right when looking at their stats - they rank fourth for metres, clean breaks and defenders beaten this season. However, they have a strong offloading game, averaging more successful passes out of contact than any other team this season and that ability could prove to be vital in unlocking stubborn defences in the Finals Series.
Sonny Bill Williams is one of their key men when it comes to the Chiefs offloading game, with the centre accounting for 27 of his side’s tally and giving the team some go-forward. However, in defence the Hamilton side have also been impressive and none more so than Sam Cane who has made 172 tackles, the fourth most this season, and has won the second most turnovers (22), just two behind Liam Gill.
If the Highlanders can better the Chiefs this weekend, they could overtake their conference rivals and take fourth spot, and it will be thanks to their ability to cross the whitewash which has seen them secure the third most points and tries this season.
This is despite the fact that they have seen little of the ball this season, with only the Cheetahs spending less time in possession than the Highlanders. The men from the south have kicked from hand more than most this season, showing they are comfortable playing for territory and then unleashing their devastating backs when in more realistic try scoring range (only the Sharks have kicked more often than the 'Landers).
No player in their team has been as devastating in attack as Waisake Naholo, who has crossed for nine tries this season as well as making the second-most clean breaks and beaten 46 defenders, while Ben Smith provides a threat from deep and Malakai Fekitoa has been impressive in both attack and defence this season.
The Brumbies, along with the Waratahs, have a lot riding on this weekend’s results. With top spot in the Australian Conference at stake, both sides could finish as high as second or as low as sixth. For the Brumbies, it is all about the set piece and defence when it comes to winning games. The Canberra-based side has conceded fewer points and tries than any other team while their lineout has been the best in the competition and has provided a platform upon which the side have scored many tries from.
The Brumbies can attribute 31 of their tries this season to their lineout, whether it be through a driving maul or in the resulting phases afterwards and no side has bettered them when it comes to the throw-in.
This lineout ability would suggest that the Brumbies are a strong team, rather than boasting incredible individuals but there are players who stand out - David Pocock for one has had a fine run of injury free form (touch wood) and is one of just four players to have won at least 20 turnovers this season, while Nic White has been in great form, assisting more tries than any other player (12).
Despite the top six being decided already, there is still much to play for and the Finals Series fixtures could look very different this time next week, with each team not knowing who they will face, and most not knowing whether they will be home or away.
What a magnificent time of the year!