OPINION: This time last year most pundits had just about had enough of Super Rugby which, week in week out, pretty much churned out the same old stuff no matter which teams were on display. It was a painful experience.
Now, with viewing figures and attendances up on the previous season, there is a noticeable increase in enthusiasm and interest, which is as much to do with how even the teams are, the regularity of surprise results based on the history of the competition, and the emergence of plenty of new talent.
In New Zealand, the Chiefs are the high-flyers, in South Africa the Stormers and Bulls are still at loggerheads, while the team many picked to be 15th at season's end, the Brumbies, are eight points ahead of the Reds in the Australian conference.
Predicting which teams will be in the top-six for the playoffs, starting on July 20, is almost a week-by-week juggling act.
With recent results, such as the Rebels beating the Crusaders, the Reds thumping the Chiefs, the Brumbies overpowering the Hurricanes, and the Highlanders refusing to lose to the Bulls, picking the playoff teams is a mystery in itself.
For now, the Stormers and the Chiefs sit at the top, the Bulls are two points further back, the Brumbies are in fourth. but are the top Australian side, with the Crusaders and Sharks filling the final two positions.
The Highlanders sit two points out of the six, with the Reds and the Hurricanes still in with a chance to force inclusion.
This weekend the charge will really begin. The Chiefs play the Bulls tomorrow night in Hamilton and on Saturday the Brumbies play the Reds in Canberra and the Sharks play the Stormers in Durban. These results will provide an indicator of things to come.
With two more rounds before the June internationals, when the All Blacks play Ireland, Australia play Scotland and Wales, and South Africa play England, much will depend on how the franchises come out of the enforced break of a month before the run home of the final three rounds – just another aspect for coaches and management to get right. All teams will be hoping their international players return to them in good shape – an unlikely scenario to say the least.
This will provide a mini competition in itself as the franchises prepare for games mainly against their own countries. Of note also will be the performance of the referees as the pressure mounts. Historically they tend to cave in to those teams who play beyond the letter of the law.
One interesting aspect has been the re-emergence of the Brumbies, a team with very few "big" names, and written off before the season began. The success of this franchise has been based on securing an experienced and previously successful coach who has demanded the hard yards be put in and has produced a fit and committed team that has followed a game plan. As they say: "It is not rocket science."
The Chiefs are also benefiting from an experienced coach in Wayne Smith, along with two hardened ITM Cup performers in Dave Rennie and Tom Coventry, while much of the success of the Highlanders can surely be put down to hard work and the simplicity of a plan demanded by Jamie Joseph. These are the type of coaches the Blues need to seek out if they are to turn around their fortunes. Respected, experienced, hard-working and ultimately in charge.
The best coach in Super Rugby is still Ewen McKenzie – a wily customer full of rugby nous and the ability to get his team playing for one another. My pick is that he will lift the Reds from eighth to inside the six. The importance of Quade Cooper to the Reds will also be interesting as you would imagine he will lift them to another level, just as Kurtley Beale has done with the Rebels and Dan Carter and Richie McCaw are doing with the Crusaders.
It is going to be an interesting five rounds before the playoffs.
Ian Snook has coached professionally for the past 25 years in New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, Ireland, Japan and Italy.