The seventh round of Super Rugby appears low key but has the potential to more clearly delineate the strengths of the South African and Australasian conferences.
There is no top-of-the-table clash to match the sixth-round showdown between the Chiefs and the ACT Brumbies but, while the Brumbies enjoy a bye, the Chiefs and Highlanders in New Zealand and Stormers and Sharks in South Africa have the chance to lengthen leads in those groups.
The Durban-based Sharks, in second spot and two points behind the Cape Town-based Stormers in South Africa, take on the third-place Lions on Saturday in what shapes as the match of the round. If the Sharks win, they can stretch their lead over the Johannesburg-based Lions and strengthen their claim on a playoffs place.
The Stormers take on Japan's Sunwolves on Friday, when a win would consolidate first place in South Africa. The Sunwolves remain winless after five matches but have taken three bonus points from losses of less than seven points to South African teams.
The Chiefs established themselves in first place in the overall standings and cemented their title favoritism with last weekend's 48-23 win over the Brumbies in Canberra. They return to Hamilton to take on the Auckland-based Blues on Friday and should string together their fifth-straight win to stay firmly atop the table.
The Blues continue to under-perform, scraping to a 24-16 win last weekend over the depleted Jaguares — only their second win of the season — and face continuing scrutiny over selections and the form and output of key players.
The Chiefs, after winning in South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia over the last four weeks, are unhindered by a heavy injury toll and it seems only complacency could cause them to lose on Saturday.
Former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga was expected to turn around the struggling Blues when he took over as head coach this season and there was fresh hope when they won their opening match against defending champions the Highlanders. But the Blues have since fallen into the same trough they fell into under previous coaches Pat Lam and John Kirwan.
Umaga hasn't been able to settle on a stable combination throughout the backline and the backs are being starved of chances by an inadequate forward pack.
"We're going to get a great test against the hottest team in Super Rugby at the moment," Umaga said. "It will probably be a greater test to see how we are tracking."
The Stormers will have to overcome a growing injury problem, particularly at flyhalf, against the Sunwolves. Playmaker Kurt Coleman injured his knee in practice this week and is likely out for the season. That follows knee injuries to Robert du Preez, who started the season at flyhalf, and Dillyn Leyds, who offered cover at No. 10.
Coach Robbie Fleck will likely start Jean-Luc du Plessis at flyhalf against the Sunwolves, though the 21-year-old has played barely 30 minutes of Super Rugby and fullback Cheslin Kolbe seems the only other option as backup.
"Those two injuries to Dillyn Leyds and Kurt Coleman are big injuries, season-ending injuries, and they were both considered flyhalf cover for us," Fleck said. "Kolbe has done a bit of playmaking stuff for the sevens.
"It's a different game but I know he can do it. He's got the qualities to play 10."
Lock Stephan Lewies will return from a nine-month injury break to strengthen the Sharks against the Lions.
"After sitting on the sidelines for so long, it's an amazing feeling to be playing again," Lewies said.
The Highlanders take on the winless Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday and, having won twice in Australia already this season — against the New South Wales Waratahs and Melbourne Rebels — should win again to stay on the heels of the Chiefs.
The Crusaders, who are third in New Zealand, can also stay close to the Chiefs and Highlanders with a win over the Western Force in Perth. The Christchurch-based Crusaders are coming off back-to-back wins in South Africa which have lifted them into a prominent place in the playoffs race.