Four Kiwi Super Rugby teams are eyeing the playoffs. Gregor Paul and Patrick McKendry pick out their key players.
Chiefs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow
The All Blacks' No 2 halfback has become the competition's forgotten man. At the start of the season, he couldn't hold a starting place ahead of the in-form Brad Weber and then a broken thumb kept him out for six weeks.
The Chiefs have managed fine without him but they will become a better team with him.
When the Chiefs reached the playoffs in 2012 and 2013, Kerr-Barlow became an increasingly influential figure the deeper his side went into the competition.
His decision-making is good under pressure and he takes some of the playmaking burden away from first-five Aaron Cruden. He also gives the Chiefs greater presence around the fringes and brings his forwards into the contest with angled short passes.
And when the tension rises and the space closes, as it inevitably will in the playoffs, that ability to play tighter is critical. Kerr-Barlow is a stronger director than Weber and has greater physical presence but the former is more than capable of igniting the Chiefs' expansive attacking game.
The Chiefs will still look to play wide and use their offloading and support running to break defences in the next few weeks. When they up the tempo and relentlessly move the ball, they are deadly, and that's the added advantage of Kerr-Barlow starting - it means the Chiefs can use the livewire Weber off the bench and drive the pace higher in the final quarter. - GP
Hurricanes: Julian Savea
In the Hurricanes' 13 games so far, Julian Savea hasn't delivered much. The world's best wing has largely been a passenger, something even he himself would probably admit. And, as he knows, that has to change.
It has to change if he's to convince the All Blacks selectors that he's progressing towards being a merit selection for them in the Rugby Championship.
But it also has to change because he owes the Hurricanes a few performances. Proper ones where he gets his hands on the ball and doesn't over-think things - he just takes on defenders and beats them any which way he feels. An in-form, confident Savea will radically alter the attacking threat the Hurricanes pose.
When space is hard to find, Savea is one of the few wings in the world who can run over the top of defenders and score by crashing through multiple tackles.
In tight games, being able to convert quarter chances is an invaluable skill and the Hurricanes will be desperate to see if they can get Savea into the head space where he remembers he can do that.
When he's at his best, he can score tries no one else can and he can also launch counter-attacks and punish teams that don't kick well.- GP
Crusaders: Nemani Nadolo
One of the most thrilling sights in rugby is seeing this huge No 11 in full flight, and the impetus he can provide will be key to the Crusaders' chances for the rest of the season. The Fijian wing probably isn't at his best in the wet, which means he might not play to his potential in the Crusaders' final two round-robin matches, both in Christchurch - inevitably cold and wet at this time of year.
But should the Crusaders have to travel to the harder grounds of Australia (Melbourne's shocking AAMI Stadium pitch excepted) or South Africa for a playoff, he will find the conditions much more to his liking.
Nadolo provides several threats - finishing wide on the left, outside No 10 Richie Mo'unga from an attacking set piece, a freakish offloading ability in the tackle, and a surprisingly cultured left boot. Off the field, he is relentlessly cheerful and one of the jokers of the team.
As he finishes his career at the Crusaders, a franchise which rescued him from relative obscurity in Japan, Nadolo will be an important presence. His next playing assignment is at Montpellier.- PMcK
Highlanders: Ben Smith
Death, taxes and the form of Ben Smith - there are few certainties in life but the ability of Smith to perform for the Highlanders or All Blacks is one of them. A few handling errors in the tests against Wales in June reminded us that he is human but again his relentlessly high level of performances in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin more than made up for those.
Having a week off after the Dunedin test, rather than travelling to play the Kings in Port Elizabeth with the rest of his Highlanders teammates, will have freshened him up, so look out for another dominant performance against the Jaguares in Buenos Aires this weekend.
The Highlanders' showdown with the Chiefs under the roof in the final round is looming as a blockbuster for both teams. If Jamie Joseph's men, currently seventh, have any hope of repeating their championship success this year, then getting their fullback on to the field will be crucial. Joseph will be hoping the 30-year-old remains injury free, and so will All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Smith is such a key man at the back - either at fullback or wing - for the All Blacks, that Hansen wouldn't want to start an important test without him.