Robert van Royen is a Stuff sports reporter
OPINION: If there’s one thing about Highlanders fans, it’s that they’re an optimistic bunch always in search of the next party at Tony Brown’s.
Fair enough. Especially this year as the three-win team sits in the eighth – and final – playoff spot with three rounds to play.
If the regular season ended today, they’d face the Blues at Eden Park in the quarterfinals. That would hardly be a reward for the Blues for finishing top.
Jostling for playoff spots has sure heated up as the business end of the season nears, and all five established New Zealand franchises are on track to qualify.
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Highlanders fans might have watched Rich Strike’s unbelievable Kentucky Derby win at the weekend and dared to dream.
After all, it’s all about heating up at the right time.
Here’s this week’s power rankings.
1. BLUES (10-1) PREVIOUS RANK: 1
Outside of Rieko Ioane’s sizzling form at centre, and brother Akira looking at a man among boys, it’s hard to get overly excited by thrashing a dreadful Rebels outfit 71-28.
Heck, 47-14 up at halftime, head coach Leon MacDonald would have got more out of the game if he’d asked Saint Kentigern College’s first XV to replace the Rebels for the second 40.
2. BRUMBIES (10-1) PREVIOUS RANK: 2
“The Brumbies of old.” That’s what Crusaders head coach Scott Robertson said of the Aussies after they bullied the Chiefs.
They’ll go from serious contenders to competition favorites if they can defend their Canberra turf against the Crusaders and Blues the next fortnight.
3. CRUSADERS (8-3) PREVIOUS RANK: 4
The timing of captain Scott Barrett’s return from suspension couldn’t be better ahead of Friday’s much-anticipated road clash with the Brumbies.
Rested vice-captain Codie Taylor, wing Sevu Reece and midfielder Jack Goodhue are also available for their fourth straight match on Australian soil.
4. CHIEFS (7-4) PREVIOUS RANK: 3
Comprehensively beaten by the Brumbies, the Chiefs have a serious scrap on their hands for a home quarterfinal.
Just as well they’re set to get co-captain Brad Weber (neck) and pivot Josh Ioane (ribs) back to face the Rebels in Melbourne on Sunday.
Lock Brodie Retallick (thumb) is also a chance.
5. WARATAHS (7-4) PREVIOUS RANK: 5
One of the best turnarounds in Super Rugby history continues for the team which didn’t record a single win a year ago.
However, the Hurricanes, Blues and Highlanders make for a tough old stretch to conclude the regular season.
6. HURRICANES (6-5) PREVIOUS RANK: 6
It’s sure going to take some getting used to seeing Crusaders centurion Owen Franks donning Hurricanes kit.
Watching the impact he has on a team right in the hunt for a home quarterfinal the next few weeks should be compelling viewing.
7. HIGHLANDERS (3-8) PREVIOUS RANK: 9
The teams at the top would be advised to keep a close eye on the Highlanders, who look destined to qualify for the generous finals format with matches against the Force (home), Waratahs (home) and Rebels (away) remaining.
A quarterfinal against Tony Brown’s men isn’t all that exciting.
8. REDS (7-4) PREVIOUS RANK: 7
Performing the autopsy on the Reds’ season is going to be a brute of a job, unless head coach Brad Thorn turns things around quick-time.
The first thing he needs to do is put Lawson Creighton out of his misery and plonk him on the sideline. He’s simply not ready for Super Rugby.
9. MOANA PASIFIKA (1-9) PREVIOUS RANK: 12
Unlike the teams below them in the rankings, at least one-win Moana Pasifika didn’t get blown out at the weekend.
But, having lost their last two games by a combined 10 points, they need to find a way to close out games.
10. WESTERN FORCE (2-8) PREVIOUS RANK: 11
You don’t often see the Force get blown out.
Regarded for their grit and ability to hang tough against even the best of sides, that’s what will hurt most about their 53-15 defeat to the Crusaders in Perth at the weekend.
That’s now eight-straight losses at home for the Force, who still have a game – against Moana Pasifika – to make up.
11. REBELS (3-8) PREVIOUS RANK: 8
You’d be hard-pressed to find a worse defensive effort than the one the Rebels turned in against the Blues at Eden Park.
The one-win Drua being almost as lousy is the only reason they didn’t plummet to the bottom of the rankings.
12. FIJIAN DRUA (1-10) PREVIOUS RANK: 10
Saved by far their worst performance of the season for their first game on New Zealand soil.
They’d best flush it ahead of Saturday’s must-watch clash with fellow newbies Moana Pasifika in Australia.