The Hurricanes have raised eyebrows by resting captain Ardie Savea and fullback Jordie Barrett for Saturday's crunch match against the leading Chiefs as national team priorities overshadow Super Rugby Pacific ahead of the playoffs.
New Zealand's teams are under strict orders to ease the workloads of their All Blacks players in the lead up to the World Cup but the Hurricanes' decision to drop two of their best for the clash in Hamilton has drawn fire from pundits.
"Few could dispute that the game of the round has just become a little less interesting," rugby reporter Patrick McKendry wrote on 1News.
With three rounds remaining before the playoffs, defeat could dent the third-placed Hurricanes' hopes of finishing in the top four and earning the right to host a quarterfinal.
The Chiefs, five points clear of the second-placed Brumbies, return to near full strength after welcoming back players rested for the 25-22 defeat by the Reds.
The Hurricanes may be saved, however, by All Black stand-downs at other teams.
Champions Crusaders, fourth on the table but level on 37 points with the Hurricanes, will rest flyhalf Richie Mo’unga, centre David Havili and outside backs Braydon Ennor and Leicester Fainga’anuku for their game at winless Moana Pasifika on Friday.
The fifth-placed Blues will have four All Blacks resting along with suspended captain Dalton Papalii for the other Friday match at the Reds.
After a poor start to the season, Brad Thorn's seventh-placed Reds have won three of their last four games but take no comfort from the Blues' absentees.
"You don't just have a 15, it's a squad of guys. And they've got real strength," Thorn said of the runners-up.
"Preparation's been important and knowing that you've got an absolute battle tomorrow night."
The sixth-placed New South Wales Waratahs will also look to shore up their place in the top eight when they host ninth-placed Fijian Drua on Saturday.
It will be a virtual elimination final in Dunedin on Saturday, though, when the lowly Highlanders host fellow strugglers Melbourne Rebels.
With both teams on 15 points, three adrift of a top eight spot, the loser's quarterfinal chances may be reduced to the mathematical.
With Australian teams also managing their Wallabies players, a depleted Brumbies side closes out the round with a trip to Perth to take on the eighth-placed Western Force.
With 12 changes to his starting side, Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham will field a virtual 'B' team against the Force, keeping their powder dry for the home blockbuster against the Chiefs in the following round.