Super Rugby AU has rounded its halfway point, with the run to the two-week finals series starting this weekend.
As it stands, all five teams remain in contention for the playoffs, but it's hard to see the Waratahs turning around their woeful season; a bigger focus for NSW is surely salvaging one win from their final four games, three of which will fortunately be played at home.
Just three points separates the unbeaten Reds from the second-placed Brumbies, while the Rebels sit a further five points adrift and the Force remain in fourth with only a solitary win over the Waratahs.
Read on as we deliver progress [or lack thereof] reports for each of Australia's five franchises.
QUEENSLAND REDS - FIRST
Boasting an unblemished record across the first half of the season, things could not be better in Brisbane. A comprehensive win over the Waratahs was followed up by three games when they really had to work for their results; Matt To'omua's missed penalty at Suncorp Stadium in Round 2 a somewhat fortunate result although it was a match Queensland had really otherwise dominated. Certainly the Reds' win Canberra, when an 80th minute Jordan Petaia try snatched a thrilling 40-38 triumph, shifted the narrative of their season and gave coach Brad Thorn's side genuine belief they are the team to beat this year. A dominant forward unit is setting the platform for a backline that is really starting to hum, NRL convert Suliasi Vunivalu beginning to assert himself on the competition in the same fashion Hunter Paisami & Petaia had already done so. Angus Scott-Young's excellent performances in the absence of skipper Liam Wright have also been pivotal while Thorn has found a good one in Seru Uru.
Star performer: Any number of Reds players are worthy of a mention here, but given the fashion in which he has advanced his game from last year Hunter Paisami gets the nod. The Reds centre started this year at outside centre, before being shifted to the No. 12 jersey for victories over the Brumbies and Force. Paisami first supplied the grubber kick that led to Petaia's match-winner in Canberra, before showcasing his power running in a two-try effort against the Force. In doing so he has shown that he is more than just a one-trick pony, who also has the ability to pull off momentum-shifting hits in defence as Matt To'omua discovered in Round 2. If there is one criticism of the 22-year-old, it's that those same hits can slide up towards the neck and head; bodyheight in defence will be a constant work-on.
Issues: While it is an improvement on last year, the Reds are still lacking that real consistency at lineout time. At 84 percent it remains the competition's lowest success rate. Edging it beyond 90 percent is particularly vital for the Reds given how dangerous they have shown they can be off set-piece plays; it may have been a mad scramble to start, but the try finished by Jock Campbell in Brisbane last week was the perfect example of that. Their scrum is a huge weapon.
Run to the finals: Anything other than a bonus-point win against the Waratahs on Saturday will be deemed a failure, such has been the shambolic nature of their great rival's season to date. But the final three games will each present stern tests, including a final trip across the Nullabor to face a Force team which may be chasing a win to reach the finals. Still, Thorn's side will be aiming for a clean sweep of the regular season and week off before the finals.
Predicted final points finish: 37
BRUMBIES - SECOND
The Brumbies experienced both the joy and heartbreak of late match-winners, to go with comfortable victories over both the Force and Waratahs. Ryan Lonergan's long-range effort to beat the Rebels set the small Canberra crowd alight in Round 3, only for Jordan Petaia's desperate dive to usher in a deathly silence a week later. As such, the Brumbies can have few complaints about where they sit at the halfway point of the year, but will also understand they have two tough away games to come. But they'll be content in the knowledge that they are largely playing great rugby; the rolling maul remains one of the world's best; there have been genuine contributions from everyone across the backline, and their set-piece remains solid around the 90 percent mark. But Dan McKellar's side have been hit hard by injury, particularly in the front-row with James Slipper, Scott Sio, Connal McInerney and Tom Ross all injured, and skipper Alan Alaalatoa serving a three-week ban. The Brumbies have signed former Chiefs prop Sosefo Kautai as injury cover.
Star performer: Yet again, the Brumbies are getting excellent performances across the board. But from a Wallabies perspective, and the Brumbies' long-term success as well, it has been pleasing to see Noah Lolesio's continued improvement following a breakout 2020. Lolesio is relishing playing outside Wallabies fly-half Nic White while the fact that Mack Hansen, Tom Banks, replacement Isaak Fines and even the seagulling Pete Samu are among the team's leading try-scorers shows that the Brumbies are playing with plenty of width, too. Lolesio is also getting it done on his own as he is the only non-outside back to sit among the top 10 for metres run ; he is also in the top 10 for defenders beaten  and tries . Lolesio is also kicking goals at 89 percent this season, from 17 shots.
Issues: The Brumbies have conceded the most penalties  in Super Rugby AU this season, and have also been given two yellow cards and the red to Alaalatoa. That indiscipline isn't cause for alarm bells just yet, but McKellar will want to see an improvement through the second half of the season nonetheless.
The run home: Refreshed after the Round 5 bye, the Brumbies welcome the improving Force to Canberra this weekend. They will be without skipper Alaalatoa for that match and the trip to Sydney a week later, while Sio remains sidelined through injury. There is some good news with Wallabies prop James Slipper fit to face the Force this week. The Brumbies should win their next two games, setting up a huge finish as they then head to Melbourne before a final clash with the Reds in Brisbane. It may be that game at Suncorp Stadium decides who finishes first or second, earning the vital week off in the process. But they won't want to look beyond the Rebels either, after only Lonergan's mammoth penalty spared them defeat in Round 3.
Predicted final points finish: 26
REBELS - THIRD
The Rebels were handed yet another COVID curveball when the Victorian Government announced a snap five-day lockdown just a week out from the start of the season. If there was some good news from the setback it was that the Rebels had the Round 1 bye and thus were able to escape into the ACT in the nick of time so that Super Rugby AU could proceed almost as planned. But it did force the Rebels into an unplanned month on the road, culminating in a gritty win in Perth. In short, they have done the hard work in the first part of the season and celebrated accordingly by putting the Waratahs to the sword back at AAMI Park last week. The two late tries they conceded, however, may come back to bite them from a bonus-point perspective. The Rebels should otherwise be proud of their efforts and were right to play somewhat negatively in both losses to the Reds and Brumbies; they were a kick away from winning each contest and have since set about making the necessary developments to their game.
Star performer: Few players have had the same exponential growth as Rebels winger Marika Koroibete over the past three seasons. Having taken out the John Eales Medal in 2019 following a series of brilliant performances at the World Cup, Koroibete has taken his game to new levels to genuinely assert himself as one of world rugby's finest wingers. This year in Super Rugby AU, Koroibete leads the competition for metres run , defenders beaten  and offloads  and sits second for clean breaks , one of which came from a Rebels lineout where he shot into the backfield and then threw a perfect pass to Joe Powell for a vital try against the Force in Perth.
Issues: While they finally broke through with three tries last week, the Rebels will want to continue their attacking resurgence and finish off more of the half-chances they created earlier in the competition. It was always going to take time for Powell, Matt To'omua, Reece Hodge and Stacey Ili to gel, but there were signs that really started to happen last week against the Waratahs. If the Rebels are truly going to challenge for the title, it's unlikely they'll be able to do so relying on the opposition's ill-discipline to tick over the scoreboard.
The run home: The Rebels have their feet up this week ahead of the Round 7 visit of the Reds, against whom they pushed to the final siren in Brisbane. Crucially, the Rebels squad hasn't suffered further significant injury damage with Dane Haylett-Petty, Isi Naisarani and Young Tonumaipea still to be sighted this year. With three of their last four at home, and a visit to the hapless Waratahs in the final regular season round, the Rebels should have their sights set on a top-two finish. It is not beyond them.
Predicted final points finish: 23
WESTERN FORCE - FOURTH
They have just the one win to show for their efforts, but there is no doubt the Force are a much improved outfit to the one that was hastily brought back to Super Rugby last year. They have been in each of the contests that have ended in defeat, and with a little more polish could have easily handed the Reds their first defeat of 2021 in Brisbane last week. Despite a strong offseason recruitment drive, the Force still seem to be lacking that one genuine strike weapon - a player who can turn a game all on his own. But their attacking shape seems to be improving and they have arguably the hardest working pack in the competition; the likes of Brynard Stander, Kane Koteka, Feleti Kaitu'u and Fergus Lee-Warner performing solidly week after week. Perhaps English recruit Jordan Olowofela can spark something out wide across the back half of the season?
Star performer: While skipper Stander and lock Lee-Warner must surely be pushing for Wallabies honours, hooker Feleti Kaitu'u also continues to put his name forward with accurate lineout throwing and a high workrate around the park. No hooker has thrown more than his 60 lineouts, his 92 percent success rate topped only by those who have had half Kaitu'u's total throws. That together with an average of 11 tackles and 26 metres over the past two games alone suggest he should be right in the mix for Rennie's squad in what is a growing list of hooker options.
Issues: One look at the Force's stats show how hard they are having to work for their tries, with three of their four five-pointers coming after seven phases or more. There is no shame in that and it also highlights the dogged nature of their pack, but it does reflect how they are without a touch of creativity and those one or two players who can make a break all on their own. The sight of someone clear in the backfield, a la Tim Anstee against the Waratahs, has been far too infrequent.
The run home: The Force could really shake the competition up with an upset win on the road in Canberra this week, while anything other than a bonus-point win at home in Round 8 against the Waratahs would be a disaster. Given the Rebels haven't really set the field alight with their attack yet either, the Force won't be without a chance in Melbourne in Round 9, which would leave Tim Sampson's team right in the finals mix ahead of the Reds' visit a week later. You can guarantee the Force won't go down without a fight.
Predicted points finish: 13
WARATAHS - FIFTH
What is there left to be said about the Waratahs? Two record defeats to start the season and last week's listless showing in Melbourne, one softened by two late consolation tries, have left NSW with just one competition point from four games. The story of the franchise's demise has been well written, traced long back before coach Rob Penney arrived, but the Kiwi can't hide from the horror show that is unfolding in Sydney. His team look little more than that which you would expect to find running around in the Shute Shield on a Saturday afternoon, with youngsters having to be blooded before their time and skill execution at worryingly low levels. Injuries have certainly played their part, the loss of skipper Jake Gordon in the first game of the season a huge blow, but the Waratahs should never have found themselves with such a dearth of talent in the first place.
Star performer: There is a touch of irony in the fact that the absence many thought would hit the Waratahs the hardest probably hasn't been much of an issue at all. Flanker Carlo Tizzano has stepped into Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper's shoes and while he hasn't filled them completely, he has easily been one of NSW's few consistent performers this season. Hard on the ball and unwavering in defence, Tizzano has a touch of lunacy about him which is the hallmark of some of the best No. 7s of the modern era. Tizzano leads the competition with 78 tackles, 23 more than his nearest rival. Another good battle with Fraser McReight looms in Sydney on Saturday night.
Issues: Where to start? The Waratahs have series problems in defence; off first phase lineout ball and rolling mauls, and further out in the backs. Their scrum has also come under serious pressure since the loss of Angus Bell, who thankfully makes his return from injury off the bench this week. NSW have made enough clean and half breaks to open up opposition defences, but too often poor passing or an unnecessary offload sees those same promising moments quickly fall to nothing.
The run home: While the Waratahs could mathematically put themselves in contention for the finals series, their first priority should be putting a bit of pride back into the sky blue jersey at a time when the famous strip has completely lost its zeal. It doesn't get any easier this week either with the unbeaten Reds en route to ANZ Stadium, the Queenslanders would love nothing more than to add salt to the already raw Waratahs wounds. Penney has also lost the experienced Lachie Swinton and Jack Dempsey through injury this week, forcing further reshuffles up front. It's hard to see how things can get better for the Waratahs in 2021.
Predicted points finish: 3