WELLINGTON • Super Rugby bosses have expressed pleasure that their ambitious plans to expand into new markets has been successful off the field, yet on it the competition has a sense of deja vu as it enters a month-long break to accommodate international matches.
New Zealand sides, who have won 13 of the 20 titles, occupy four of the top five spots on the overall table with seven-time champions Canterbury Crusaders leading on 45 points, having won 10 of their 12 games so far.
The biggest issue the organisers now face, having expanded to 18 teams, is convincing New Zealand fans in particular that the conference-based system, which guarantees two South African and one Australian side in the play-offs, is fair.
Waikato Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said on Friday that he was not happy with the format, and the draw, which he felt was tipped in South Africa's favour.
The Lions, who began the season with three games on the road, have taken advantage of nine successive games in South Africa to vault into second place.
Johan Ackerman's side have a relatively easy run home with two of their three matches against the lowly Kings and Jaguares.
While New Zealand sides head the table at the break, many pundits believe their conference is the strongest and most evenly contested of the four.
It is also the one that is most likely to cannibalise competition points from each other, with even their fifth-placed side the Auckland Blues having won six games and proving tough to break down.
The Australian conference-leading ACT Brumbies (34 points) and NSW Waratahs (34) are ninth overall, but the big question for them is how well their international players recover from what will be a gruelling and physical Test series against England.
Australia's three other sides are out of contention, languishing in the lower third of the table with the Cheetahs and the three expansion sides, who have struggled with the higher standard of play and the need for consistency.
The Argentina-based Jaguares have been blighted by disciplinary issues, while the hastily-assembled Singapore co-based Japanese side Sunwolves have particularly struggled against physical opponents in the scrum and set pieces, although they have proved potent when allowed to run with the ball.
However, despite their lack of on-field success, Sanzaar bosses are pleased with the impact of the sides in Asia and the Americas.
"The new teams have added something different," Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos said.
"And that has increased the attractiveness and reach of our product into markets we had not penetrated or had much impact in the past."