Robert van Royen is a Stuff sports reporter
OPINION: If there’s one thing about Highlanders fans, it’s that they’re an optimism always in the 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 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 star 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.