Super Rugby comes to the end of conference play this weekend and four of the five New Zealand sides are certain to make the play-offs. Whichever of them finishes highest on the table after the games tonight will qualify for a home quarter-final. The next highest will play the Australian conference winner across the Tasman next weekend. One or both the unlucky ones will have to get on a plane to South Africa tomorrow. If only one travels, the other will face the top New Zealand team next weekend, possibly repeating its match tonight.
It strikes New Zealanders as unfair that at least three of their teams would have a home play-off if venues were decided by points overall, but Sanzar reviewed the Super 18 this week and appears determined to retain this strange feature of its format next season.
It is obviously in the interests of the competition and its television audiences that play-offs are also held in Australia and South Africa, and arguably it is in the interests of New Zealand rugby too. All three live on the revenue the game can attract everywhere.
It would be shortsighted of NZ Rugby to demand home games for the top four teams if that reduced interest in South Africa and cut Australia out entirely, which is what could happen this year.
It must be worrying enough that New Zealand sides have been so much better than the rest. The demolition of the Australian sides that met New Zealand teams last weekend, even the Brumbies at the hands of Blues, shows the game at a low ebb across the Tasman.
The New Zealand sides have looked so much better than the rest that, if none of them are drawn to meet each other after tonight, there is a chance the Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders will all win next weekend. It is not in the competition's interest to have both semifinals in this country.
If the New Zealand teams have been disadvantaged by having to play so many rugged games against each other under the conference format, it appears to have done them no harm.
They are battle hardened and better for it. It was clearly of advantage to the All Blacks too.
Sanzar needs to review the number of teams in the Super 18. There must be doubts that Australia and South Africa can sustain five. Australia really has only three competitive sides, if Queensland's Reds are not judged by this season. The Perth franchise has had time to develop and failed to do so. Melbourne's probably deserves more time. The Japanese and Argentine franchises have struggled in their first season, but should have the financial and national resources to do better in a year or two.
The glaring unfairness in the conference system is that all teams do not meet, meaning some have a tougher competition than others. The New Zealand sides meet each other several times.
But, somewhat surprisingly, it is these "home derbies" that draw the best crowds and television audiences, not the big name teams and players we see here less often. Tonight we have two home derbies that, thanks to the peculiarities of the current format, provide dizzying permutations for the play-offs. Enjoy the puzzle.