Round 18: Melbourne Rebels must deliver; Ioane brothers to haunt Hurricanes?

The penultimate round of Super Rugby's regular season begins with the always-enjoyable Southern Derby. The Crusaders may be a little rusty coming off the bye, but it would be brave to suggest they won't make it a sweep of the Highlanders in 2018.

Following that it's off to Suncorp Stadium for a key Australian derby between the Reds and Rebels.

The Saturday action begins in Hamilton, before the round wraps up in Cape Town where the Sharks will be fighting to keep their season alive.

Read on for some of the key storylines from Round 18.

Australian conference

Melbourne Rebels have clearly been a different outfit in 2018. With Dave Wessels taking over from Tony McGahan and a swag of Wallabies joining the squad, a drastic improvement was expected. And so it came.

But it will all be for nothing unless they can take down an under-strength Queensland Reds on the road in Brisbane. After failing to get the job done at home to the Waratahs last Friday, despite being in charge with 20 minutes to play, the Rebels are fortunate to have a second crack at the biggest game in their seven-year history.

Win and a place in the playoffs will all but be secured. Lose, and what looked like being a breakout Super Rugby season will be condemned to the scrapheap. If the Rebels are serious about making an impact in the Melbourne sporting market, opportunities like the one they have this year simply cannot be spurned.

"I think we can beat most teams in this comp if we play to our potential," Wessels said earlier this week. "The players are right up for it. The great thing about being in playoff contention is that you don't have to a lot of motivating as a coach."

If Wessels truly subscribes to the sentiments above, then Friday night's game at Suncorp Stadium is all about execution.

Having dominated the possession and territory stats against the Waratahs, while asking NSW to make an extra 83 more tackles, the Rebels had more than enough ball to claim victory. That they were unable to deliver the knockout punch when up 26-17, or snatch it at the death when afforded penalties on the Waratahs' line, suggests a lack of composure and game management.

The Reds might not boast the same attacking firepower as the Waratahs, especially given the season-ending injury to skipper Samu Kerevi, but they will be desperate to frustrate the Rebels and have the back-row needed to do just that. They will also likely test the Rebels at scrum-time.

If ever Reece Hodge is to confirm his suitability as a potential back-up for Wallabies No.10 Bernard Foley, this is the game to do it. The Rebels have the backline to hurt the Reds and providing the forward pack secure a share of the ball somewhere near parity, Hodge must be the creator alongside the improving Billy Meakes.

With a trip to Dunedin to face the Highlanders waiting in Round 19, it really is all or nothing for the Rebels in Brisbane.

New Zealand conference

They're rumoured to be staying with the Blues and now the Ioane brothers can help the Auckland franchise heap further pain on the out-of-form Hurricanes when they meet in Wellington on Saturday.

Akira Ioane was rumoured to be in the Hurricanes' sights while any of the other four Kiwi franchises would love to have Rieko at their disposal, the younger of the two Ioane boys establishing himself as the game's best winger.

For the second straight week, Rieko finds himself in the No.12 jersey as the Blues continue to manage the Sonny Bill Williams-sized hole in their midfield. Ioane did a fair job of that against the Reds last week in registering 14 runs for a 114 metres, one clean break, three tackle busts, a try and try-assist.

Whether it becomes a permanent move will be decided further up the chain by the All Blacks brains-trust, but there is little doubting his ability to shift closer in to the action.

The path to a Test stardom hasn't been as easy for Akira Ioane, despite the No.8 enjoying his best Super Rugby season to date. Akira was passed over for the All Blacks' series against France, the Highlanders' Shannon Frizell preferred despite the rookie back-rower playing much of his rugby off the bench in Dunedin.

Still, Akira Ioane has been easily his side's most consistent forward performer this season and one of the best in the competition; he leads Super Rugby for tackle busts [67] and ranks among the top 10 for total carries [146].

Given their interest in Akira, who would be an excellent fit for the departing Brad Shields, it would be a tough pill for the Hurricanes to swallow should he and brother Rieko come out and lead an unlikely Blues raid on Westpac Stadium.

The Hurricanes have welcomed back key All Blacks Beauden Barrett and Vaea Fifita as well as Shields, but they are a shadow of the team who won 10 straight games between rounds two and 14.

The Blues, meanwhile, have lost their last six against the Hurricanes as part of a woeful record against fellow Kiwi opposition.

If Tana Umaga's side are serious about contesting the NZ conference next year, this is an excellent opportunity to show what they're capable of. The Ioane boys are at the very heart of that.

South African conference

The Sharks have more to gain from their Super Rugby clash against the Stormers at Newlands on Saturday, as they are still in the running for the Super Rugby playoffs.

However, while the Cape side have no chance to make the knockout stage, there will be a gigantic fight at the inside centre to see who should wear the No.12 jersey for the Springboks in the upcoming Rugby Championship.

The Stormers' Damian de Allende and the Sharks' André Esterhuizen will go head to head in a duel that could go a long way in determining who will be South Africa's inside centre during the matches against New Zealand, Australia and Argentina.

Both centres are top physical players, who can get over the advantage line with ball in hand. However, their ability to create space for their outside backs has been the biggest concern. Their decision-making in that crucial position will also come under the spotlight.

Rassie Erasmus is looking for players who can combine skill and physicality, and time is running out for de Allende and Esterhuizen to show that they possess the all-round skill to be the inside centre the Springboks need to compete for silverware.