Cape Town - Shall we virtually take it for granted that the runaway Crusaders are going to streak to top-placed finish overall in Super Rugby 2019, teeing up rights to another home final should they safely negotiate the knockout phase?
If that scenario does play itself out by the end of ordinary season in mid-June, the race to finish second - or read: the best team from either of the South African or Australian conferences - assumes additional importance, as the carrot of a home semi at least beckons for that side.
Finishing third is, the history books clearly remind, a highly unlikely passport to eventual title glory, given its unfavourable likelihood of needing to win both an away semi and then tackle the showpiece itself in foreign climes.
So while the unrelentingly commanding, defending champion ‘Saders will have to experience a slump of note in the closing weeks to be toppled from their perch (they are 13 points clear of the artificially, almost bewilderingly second-placed Sharks, though a lesser seven clear of compatriots the Hurricanes in current, enforced “fourth”), clinching that runners-up spot becomes of increasingly key value.
It’s a tense race in that respect: while the Sharks enjoy a two-point cushion over the Melbourne Rebels, the Aussie side have a game in hand after not being involved in the latest round, so there’s a case for arguing they’re better placed in a sense.
Any South African looking at the overall table early this week could be forgiven for wishing that ordinary season ended here and now - not only ensuring second for the Sharks, but also seeing all of the Bulls, Jaguares and Stormers making the eight-team playoffs cut from the SA conference.
The reality is potentially a lot less rosy, of course.
With most teams having six games left ahead of the finals series and a handful of others seven, arguably all but two sides (the firmly bottom-placed Sunwolves, plus notably under-performing Chiefs) remain very much in the playoffs hunt.
That could mean several New Zealand or Australian outfits quickly vaulting South African ones, given how volatile the astonishingly broad, “middling” section of the table is.
But of special concern will be the possibility of the slightly surprise-packet Rebels, coached by Capetonian Dave Wessels, eventually leapfrogging the Sharks (or whoever else is leading the fickle SA group at the end of the ordinary roster) for second spot overall.
That would almost certainly mean this country failing to host a semi-final for the first time since 2015, when the Hurricanes topped the table, the Waratahs ended second and the best SA finishers were the Stormers in third.
Then under the charge of Allister Coetzee, the Newlands-based side had a home quarter-final but bowed out of the tournament with a relative whimper, beaten by the Brumbies 39-19.
In the three years since then, the Lions - eventual losing finalists every time - have always advanced to a home semi by ending within the top two, and in 2017 they even hosted the showpiece although the Crusaders won it 25-17.
While the Rebels are by means guaranteed to boss their conference at its finish (it could all change if any of the Waratahs, Brumbies or Reds get on a timely roll) they do hold inside lane and thus look the biggest threat to denying SA a home semi ticket.
Should they and the Sharks remain the dominant elements in their respective conferences to the end, the Rebels’ more favourable run-in, on paper, arguably makes them a smarter bet for overall runner-up slot.
Apart from the already-mentioned benefit of that extra game, four of the Rebels’ seven remaining matches are at home, whereas the Sharks must play four of their six fixtures in hostile territory.
The Bulls, despite their derby setback to the Stormers on Saturday, stay a strong SA candidate both for winning the local conference and eyeing that important second spot overall (they have an identical log record to the Rebels at present), but bear in mind that they must still negotiate a hazardous four-game itinerary across the Indian Ocean.
And while the Sharks still have two Australasian tour games plus a taxing trip to Buenos Aires to chew on, the Rebels’ only remaining long-haul trek (if you don’t consider shortish hops to NZ) is for a once-off mission to Tokyo to play the labouring Sunwolves.
Although they may not be as relevant by the end of ordinary season, these are the remaining fixtures for the current SA and Australian conference leaders:
Sharks (played 10: 26 points): Crusaders (a), Chiefs (a), Lions (h), Hurricanes (h), Jaguares (a), Stormers (a)
Rebels (played 9: 24 points): Hurricanes (a), Reds (h), Bulls (h), Sunwolves (a), Waratahs (h), Crusaders (a), Chiefs (h)
Ask yourself which team’s shoes you’d rather be in: my suggestion is the latter’s.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing