Wellington - Brief stories ahead of this weekend's final round of Super Rugby regular season matches:
Playoff picture clear as mud
Super Rugby's ever-changing format and the soon-to-be-scrapped conference system have thrown up a dizzying range of permutations for when the playoffs begin.
Going into this weekend's final round of fixtures, the four top teams - Crusaders, Jaguares, Brumbies and Hurricanes - are guaranteed home quarter-finals.
But eight teams can still make the last four berths in the most open regular season finale in recent memory.
Only the Bulls, currently fifth, are guaranteed to finish somewhere in the top eight.
So it promises to be a nail-biting weekend for fans of the Lions, Stormers, Rebels, Sharks, Chiefs, Highlanders and Waratahs who all are in the running for the other three slots.
Retallick raring to go
All Blacks lock Brodie Retallick returns from injury to face the Rebels in Melbourne on Friday in a must-win match if the Chiefs are to snatch an unlikely playoff place.
The Hamilton-based side looked out of contention a month ago but a late-season surge, including a comeback victory over the table-topping Crusaders, has put them in with a chance.
The addition of flanker Sam Cane, who missed most of the season with a broken neck, has also played a big part in their revival.
"It's about time, eh?" said the 75-Test All Black, who was sidelined for two months with a wrist injury. "It's been a long eight weeks. I'm definitely excited to get back."
The Waratahs' gamble of playing all their Wallabies up to the penultimate game of the season didn't pay off, with the Sydney-based side needing a miracle to extend their season.
They need the unlikely combination of a bonus-point victory against the Highlanders in Dunedin on Friday and other results to go their way.
And they will have to do it without Wallabies Michael Hooper, Rob Simmons, Sekope Kepu, Bernard Foley and Kurtley Beale who must all be rested under Rugby Australia policy for a World Cup year.
It means high-pressure first starts for flyhalf Mack Mason and Alex Newsome, who will wears the number 15 shirt for the first time in Super Rugby.
"They've been waiting patiently," coach Daryl Gibson said. "I've been very consistent with putting out pretty much the same team every week and these guys are really energised and enthusiastic."
Unreal for Rebels
It's do or die for the Melbourne Rebels who must beat the Chiefs on Friday to make the playoffs for the first time.
"For the Rebels who have never played in finals football and for a lot of guys who were in other Super Rugby provinces in years gone by that haven't played in finals, it's just such an unreal experience," said scrum-half Will Genia.
Only Genia, Quade Cooper and Matt Toomua among the Rebels have experienced Super Rugby finals action.
"We understand that we're in a position now where if we win this game, we're playing finals footy and we're creating history for the club," Genia said.
Kwagga blow for Lions
The Lions' hopes of going one step further than the last three seasons and winning Super Rugby have received a massive blow with the loss of Kwagga Smith.
The loose forward injured a hamstring early in a heavy home loss to the Hurricanes last weekend and is not expected to play again this season.
The versatility of Smith - he can play in any back-row position - has led some pundits to push for his inclusion in the Springboks World Cup squad.
"This is a huge blow and could not have come at a worse time," said coach Swys de Bruin ahead of a daunting final-round derby at the Bulls.
The 2016, 2017 and 2018 runners-up lie sixth in the combined standings and if they lose for a second time this season to the fifth-placed Bulls, could miss out on the quarter-finals.
Du Preez tactics under fire
Sharks coach Robert du Preez is under fire again from the media, with a senior columnist saying the team rely exclusively on physicality when seeking victories.
Writing in Business Day, Gavin Rich said: "The other three local Super Rugby teams look like they have at least a semblance of a game plan.
"But the Sharks' need for physical dominance as the starting point for anything to work is taken to the extreme."
Previously slammed for poor substitutions and favouring his off-form son, fly-half Robert Jnr, Du Preez lashed back at critics, labelling them "cockroaches" and "ill-informed".
Although the Sharks are ninth overall and last in the South African conference, they will secure a quarter-finals slot if they beat the injury-ravaged Stormers in Cape Town.