MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The ACT Brumbies were the only Australian team to lock up a top-four spot in Super Rugby Pacific and are again the nation's best hope of stopping a New Zealand sweep of the quarter-finals starting on Friday.
By the time the Brumbies host the Wellington Hurricanes in Canberra on Saturday in a repeat of last year's quarter-final, they could well be Australia's last team standing.
The New South Wales Waratahs and Queensland Reds will have to defy history by winning a first playoff in New Zealand when they meet the Auckland Blues and Waikato Chiefs respectively.
Fijian Drua, meanwhile, face the toughest assignment in the competition on Saturday when they make their post-season debut against the Canterbury Crusaders in Christchurch where the champions have won all 27 playoffs dating back to 1996.
The match-ups will likely leave the Brumbies looking to save face for Australian rugby which has not produced a winner in the provincial competition since Michael Cheika's Waratahs in 2014.
The only one of the country's five teams to finish the regular season with a winning record this year, the Brumbies will bid to defy the Hurricanes again after beating them 35-25 in last year's quarter-finals.
But the path to the semi-finals is anything but assured, with captain-prop Allan Alaalatoa sidelined with injury and the Hurricanes full of beans after a comeback win over the Crusaders in Wellington last weekend.
"Bringing momentum into the quarter-finals was really important for us and getting our performance to where we wanted it last week was key," said the Hurricanes' outgoing head coach Jason Holland.
"Heading to Canberra, our focus is to continue to build on some of the parts of our game that went really well for us against the Crusaders."
The twice-champion Chiefs have home advantage for as long as they last in the playoffs after finishing the regular season at the top of the table and face a Reds team that limped into eighth spot after three straight defeats.
The Chiefs are wary, however, having lost their only match of the season when the Reds stunned them 25-22 in New Plymouth a month ago.
A number of All Blacks, including Sam Cane and Brodie Retallick, come back into the side after being rested from the 43-19 win over Western Force in Perth last weekend.
"We're keen to rip in and we know it's a bit of a redemption game after our only loss," Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson told New Zealand media this week.
"We're keen to right a few wrongs."
Defeat could mean Brad Thorn's last game in charge of the Reds, with the dual international out of contract at the end of the season.
The Waratahs will need to snap an eight-match losing streak to the Blues on Friday and end their winless record in away playoffs to advance.
Beaten 55-21 on their last visit to Eden Park and coming off a demoralising 33-24 home defeat to the previously winless Moana Pasifika, the Sydney side are up against it.
Buoyant after thrashing the Reds in Suva to sew up their first playoffs appearance in their second season, Fijian Drua head to Christchurch on Saturday seeking to pull off the unthinkable against the Crusaders.
Mick Byrne-coached Drua savoured a stunning home win over the Crusaders early in the season and have pledged to test Scott Robertson's injury-hit team with physicality.
However, the depth and playoffs experience of the home side at a graveyard for visitors should keep the Crusaders in the hunt for a seventh championship trophy in seven years.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Peter Rutherford)