It seems like just yesterday that the RaboDirect Rebels were readying themselves for the challenge of only their second season in world rugby’s toughest provincial competition.
Four sensational wins, countless nail-bitingly close games and some emotional farewells to club legends have gone by in the blink of an eye, and sadly the end of a brave and thrilling campaign is now well and truly in sight.
For some of the Rebels players taking the field at Newlands in Cape Town on Saturday night, it will be a more definitive ending than for others.
Stirling Mortlock and Al Campbell will play their last competitive matches against the Stormers this weekend, and should hang up their boots with a great deal of pride in their outstanding sporting careers. Julian Huxley will also pull on Rebels colours for the last time, bringing to an end his admirable achievements in Australian rugby before heading to France to sample the foreign game. While a host of other players such as James Hilgendorf, Michael Lipman, Adam Byrnes, Tom Chamberlain, Mark Gerrard and Heath Tessmann will be moving on to the next phase of their lives.
The Rebels will do their utmost to give their departing team-mates the result they deserve in their final outing, knowing full well they face one of their greatest challenges to date.
Their hosts have a comfortable hold on the top spot in the South African conference, having lost just two of their 15 games so far this season. By far the best defensive side in the competition, the Stormers have conceded an average of just 15.5 points per game and have not been defeated at home this year.
But if this unpredictable Super Rugby season has taught us anything, it is that every side has its weaknesses, and that impressive form can sometimes count for little once the whistle has blown.
The Stormers are on the verge of becoming only the third team since 2005 to go an entire regular season without scoring four tries in a single game. Topping the South African conference with just two bonus points from narrow losses is a remarkable feat, highlighting their defensive quality, but some believe their relative lack of attacking prowess could be their downfall.
The hosts are guaranteed a home semi-final, an invaluable reward in this long-distance competition, but could do a great deal for their chances of winning their first ever Super Rugby title if they can pick up maximum points against the Rebels.
The extra point could prove the difference between a home or away final should the Stormers progress through the knockout stages, so there is plenty of incentive for them to play with more verve against the Rebels than they have in recent weeks.
For their part, the Rebels have nothing to lose in their last game of the season, and have shown throughout the year that when they move the ball with confidence and urgency they can break down the defences of the best teams in the competition.
With the Stormers likely to come out attacking, the Rebels will know they simply can’t afford to concede the same number of missed tackles as they did last week. Their defensive lapses at the start of the match gave the Lions a 24-0 head start, and it took a miraculous comeback for them to regain the lead and almost win the game.
There will no doubt be some tired and sore bodies throughout the Rebels squad, but the players will be sure to find additional reserves of energy with the end of the season just 80 minutes of hard work away.
That elusive first overseas victory for the Rebels is up for grabs again on Saturday night, and what better way to cross that feat off the list than by taking down one of the favourites for the Super Rugby title at their home fortress.
A win in Cape Town would be a truly memorable first for the club, and a deserving last result for a team that has taken great strides in just their second year of existence.
TV Coverage: Fox Sports 2, 11.00pm Saturday night (AEST)