A finals sprint between the ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds begins tonight, but World Cup-winning coaches Rod Macqueen and Bob Dwyer have warned how the NSW Waratahs could spoil either team's chances.
The Brumbies and Reds both face the Waratahs in their final three matches, the fierce inter-state contests with the potential to determine the Australian conference champions.
The Super Rugby season resumes tonight after a three-week hiatus, the new-look Brumbies sitting five competition points ahead of the defending-champion Reds.
The Canberra Times spoke with former Wallabies coaches Macqueen, Dwyer, John Connolly and former Wallabies hooker Brendan Cannon about who will finish on top.
■ Who will make the finals - the Brumbies, Reds or both?
Macqueen: The Brumbies look like a well-oiled machine, but it's going to be difficult for two Australian teams to get in the finals. The Brumbies have turned it around, but the Reds are starting to find their form.
Dwyer: I think only one can get through. The Brumbies are in the key spot. Someone has to overtake them and I'd rather be where they sit instead of trying to chase down a margin.
Connolly: The way they come out of this break will be the big thing, it can change the momentum. You would think the Brumbies are going to make it, and the Reds are possibles but it's going to be a fight.
Cannon: On form you'd have to pick the Brumbies because of the way that they've been playing … if they win their last three games that secures them a play-off, so when you've got as clear a mandate as that it's pretty easy to put yourself there, whereas the Reds need to win every game with bonus points and hope things go their way.
■ What's better - youth and enthusiasm or a championship-winning team?
Dwyer: Experience means can you keep your focus with bombs exploding around you. Young guys can do that just as well as older guys. I think the Reds were playing better at this stage last year than they are now. They're without James Horwill and Ben Tapuai. The Brumbies are playing 100 times better this year.
Macqueen: I'd suggest the enthusiasm is only going to get greater. The Brumbies have got Stephen Larkham, Jake White and George Gregan so nothing is going to daunt them and that breeds confidence.
Connolly: Maybe the break will help the Brumbies, the hard thing for young teams is that they can't maintain form throughout the season. But the Reds will have that confidence after their run last year.
■ The Brumbies and Reds each play the Waratahs in the run home. Can the Tahs be the Australian finals pest?
Cannon: The Waratahs' season isn't going to get any better in their last two remaining games. It's just been a year of disappointment for them … and their pain's going to be intensified for the last two games.
Dwyer: Being in the Wallabies would have had a positive effect on the Waratahs players. I think the big threat to both the Brumbies and Reds is the Waratahs. They'll be playing for pride to end the season and they're going to be a real danger.
Macqueen: You only have to look at the amount of Test players the Waratahs have to know they're a good side. But at the end of the day, the Brumbies have been the most consistent team all year.
■ Who are the X-factors for the Brumbies and Reds?
Cannon: Zack Holmes has really impressed me in the couple of games that he's had. He's shown that he belongs, he hasn't appeared out of place, he's got a good confidence about him.
Connolly: Quade Cooper had one of the best seasons I've ever seen last year and they'll need him again but he's still getting back to form. The Brumbies have covered well for their flyhalf injuries and the true test for champion teams is their No.9 and No.10 and how they perform.
Dwyer: The fact the Brumbies have lost two flyhalves, to still be where they are is absolutely fantastic. Joe Tomane is a big loss, but Andrew Smith is really coming into his own. I think [Scott] Fardy might - underline might - be able to play No.6 for the Wallabies, he has plenty of grunt and mongrel across the board. Quade Cooper is a phenomenally good player.
■ Who's won the coaching battle: Jake White or Ewen McKenzie?
Dwyer: Ewen is extremely good tactically. The Brumbies have done a fantastically good job, but I don't know who is contributing what. If I took a guess, I'd say the specifics are contributed by Stephen Larkham and Laurie Fisher and the leadership, confidence and direction has come from Jake.
Macqueen: Jake has done a great job and he's come in and stamped his professionalism. Having Larkham and George Gregan there, it's nice to have those ingredients that have made the Brumbies successful in the past.
Connolly: The unsung hero for the Brumbies is Laurie Fisher. I think he's an outstanding coach and the Laurie Fisher and Jake team is a great combination. That's a great thing for the players.
Cannon: They've both got their own problems to deal with, but I think Jake's done an outstanding job with a really young group. You can just see they've got an adaptable game plan. They're still relatively inexperienced but they're playing with a composure and game management beyond their years.
■ Who's got the best run home?
Dwyer: The Brumbies have the [Auckland] Blues in the last round, you'd think they have the better there. If they're good enough, they're in the position to get there. What has happened in the past gives you confidence for what might happen in the future. The Brumbies have aimed up every game, that's really in their favour.
Macqueen: The Brumbies are taking it one step at a time and that's important. They will aim to top the conference and then semi-finals are a completely different beast.