NSW Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson is refusing to blame fallout from the Israel Folau calamity for a Super Rugby campaign which is set to wind up this weekend, barring a miracle.
Gibson's men must upset the Highlanders on Friday, secure a bonus point in the process and hope other results go their way if they're to secure a finals berth.
Making their task even more treacherous is heavy rain forecast for Invercargill and Gibson's decision to abide by the Rugby Australia player welfare requirements.
It means 12th-placed NSW will be without Wallabies Michael Hooper, Kurtley Beale, Bernard Foley, Rob Simmons and Sekope Kepu, who are serving their second mandatory rest week.
Halfback Nick Phipps is promoted to captain in what is likely his final Super Rugby game before leaving for English club London Irish.
Phipps caused a stir on Sunday when opining that teammates had been left disappointed and distracted by the controversy surrounding Folau's homophobic social media post and the player's subsequent war with Rugby Australia over his contract termination.
However, Gibson was having none of it.
The Kiwi coach said while the impact of Folau's on-field absence was obvious, the players were professional enough to put any off-field drama to one side.
"Certainly it's been a dominating story and one that has taken up a lot of time, but it can never be an excuse for performance," Gibson said.
"We still have to go out there and perform our scrums, our lineouts, all elements of the game that you need to perform.
"And when you look at those very close margins in the games we've just lost, it's usually because we haven't quite nailed a moment in the game, that we've lapsed.
"You can't attribute Israel to those moments."
Gibson took responsibility for the second-string nature of this week's team, conceding he had gambled by fielding his strongest side for last week's 35-24 loss to the Australian conference-winning Brumbies.
It has forced him into some patch-up work in the backline, with Alex Newsome shifting from wing to fullback and Mack Mason reintroduced at five-eighth in his first appearance since a forgettable display in the home loss to the Sunwolves in March.
No.8 Hugh Sinclair will make his first start of the season and flanker Will Miller his second.
Hooker Tolu Latu is unavailable as he is attending a court hearing for a drink driving charge on Friday.
The Highlanders can also sneak into a finals spot with victory.
France-bound All Blacks fullback Ben Smith hasn't recoved from a lingering hamstring injury so has missed selection, potentially bringing an end to his Super Rugby career.
Highlanders: Josh McKay, Waisake Naholo, Rob Thompson, Teihorangi Walden, Tevita Li, Josh Ioane, Aaron Smith, Luke Whitelock (capt), James Lentjes, Liam Squire, Tom Franklin, Jackson Hemopo, Tyrel Lomax, Liam Coltman, Ayden Johnstone. Res: Ash Dixon, Daniel Lienert-Brown, Siate Tokolahi, Josh Dickson, Shannon Frizell, Kayne Hammington, Marty Banks, Elliot Dixon.
Waratahs: Alex Newsome, Cam Clark, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Lalakai Foketi, Curtis Rona, Mack Mason, Nick Phipps (capt), Hugh Sinclair, Will Miller, Michael Wells, Tom Staniforth, Ned Hanigan, Tom Robertson, Damien Fitzpatrick, Harry Johnson-Holmes. Res: Andrew Tuala, Rory O'Connor, Shambeckler Vui, Ryan McCauley, Jed Holloway, Jack Dempsey, Jake Gordon, Tautalatasi Tasi.