We enter the penultimate weekend of Super Rugby with the top four qualifying teams having secured their places in the semi-finals.
In the end the two extra wild card places didn't have any effect on the final four places for this year's competition. It did however generate another round of bruising Super Rugby and some impressive performances by a number of players.
The Blues were slow to react to the initial intensity shown by a severely depleted Waratahs side. They missed a number of first time tackles early on which allowed the Waratahs to apply pressure on the Blues line. Unfortunately for them they just didn't have the personnel available to convert that early pressure more effectively. It is something the Blues will be very wary of going into this week's game as a quality outfit will punish them if they give away those soft opportunities.
A special mention must go to Phil Waugh who played in his last Super Rugby game. He has been a great competitor over all these years and his experience and leadership will most certainly be missed by the Sydney outfit.
The Crusaders welcomed back two of their star backline players in Sonny Bill Williams and Sean Maitland. Both made a telling impact on the game and they comfortably disposed of a spirited Sharks side.
The Sharks certainly didn't lack anything in commitment and physicality with Bismark du Plessis and Willem Alberts making some bone-crunching tackles and several incisive carries throughout the game. In the end, their previous week's fantastic away win and travel fatigue took its toll and they were not able to keep up the pace against a superior Crusaders side. I fear it could have been a bigger score was it not for the wet weather affecting the Crusaders ball handling and retention abilities.
An interesting moment in the game was the penalty awarded against the Sharks for dangerous play by referee Bryce Lawrence without any contact being made. His decision has sparked numerous comments from many angles even from within the referee's fraternity.
It just highlights the importance of the men in the middle again and how influential their decisions are in a game. A decision like that can affect the result of a closely contested match and a whole season's hard work can be undone in an instant. The spotlight will shine even brighter on Mr Lawrence and his decision-making ability come the final in a week's time. His decision to penalise the Sharks will certainly be a hot topic of discussion around the braai/barbeque fires for many more years.
In Brisbane, the Reds go into this week's first semi-final well rested against the resurrected Blues. Suncorp Stadium has been a good hunting ground for them this season and their excellent form has been rewarded by an increased number of supporters flocking to the ground to support them.
I've been very impressed with their development this year as they've matured into a well balanced team that has the ability to vary their game from being effectively pragmatic to being successfully industrious.
They also welcome back three key players to their team this week. Digby Ione's finishing skills, Anthony Faaingaa's solid defence in the 13 channel and Beau Robinson's work at the breakdown will be adding that extra polish to the number one side of the tournament.
The Blues lost Anthony Boric to injury this week and his presence in the lineout will be sorely missed. Coach Pat Lam also has another selection headache in the form of who to pick on the wing. Rene Ranger is fit again and would be a shoe-in were it not for the inconsistent form of his goal kickers. Lachie Munro has respectably stepped up to the goal kicking plate, but this could be the deciding factor in a closely contested semi-final.
The Reds will have too much in their armoury for the Blues in this one. The Crusaders march on to an expected wet Cape Town this week. This year's journeymen have only made one change to the side that despatched the Sharks last weekend. Richie McCaw returns from his troubling foot injury and completes a full complement of All Black forwards available for the Crusaders pack. Behind the pack only Israel Dagg is missing, but Tom Marshall has acquitted himself impressively in Dagg's absence.
The Stormers have built their campaign this year around an almost impenetrable defensive structure. They have conceded the least amount of tries by any team by far this tournament. One of the only teams to have been able to unlock that defence in Cape Town this season has been the Crusaders (playing without Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Brad Thorne).
They are also missing one of their key components of this wall in Duane Vermeulen who is out with an injury. The Stormers will put immense pressure on the Crusaders attack and will have to close down the space around Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams.
Their slight inability to convert this pressure on defence into scoring opportunities has been criticised this season and will be a deciding factor in this game. The surprise inclusion of Premiership winning Schalk Brits in the loose forward department might be the inspiration they need on attack and it will be interesting to watch his impact on the game.
This will be another bruising encounter up front with the Crusaders just edging it.