WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Teams from the South African conference teams have taken command in the late race for playoffs positions in Super Rugby, exposing the limitations of their Australian and New Zealand opponents.
Meanwhile, Argentina's conference-leading Jaguares are being criticized from fielding what is in effect the national team.
With three rounds remaining in the regular season, teams from the South Africa conference occupy four of the top-eight places on the overall championship table while a fifth African team, the Stormers, are just outside the eight on point difference.
In contrast, New Zealand has only two teams in the playoffs zone — the first-place Crusaders and fourth-place Hurricanes. Australia has two more in the third-place ACT Brumbies and fifth-place Melbourne Rebels.
Teams currently outside the top eight still have a chance of making the playoffs, but those chances diminish as teams becomes dependent on other results to reach the quarterfinals.
In New Zealand, the Dunedin-based Highlanders are only a point outside the eight but their run to the playoffs was made more difficult after they failed to take a point from two losses in South Africa. They have matches remaining against the Pretoria-based Bulls and New South Wales Waratahs, teams that need to win to keep alive any playoff chance.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs beat the Queensland Reds in the weekend's 15th round to just sustain their playoff chances while likely eliminating the Reds from contention. The Auckland-based Blues' loss to the Crusaders leaves them 13th on the table and with only the slimmest mathematical chance of making the top eight with matches left against the Reds and Hurricanes.
The ACT Brumbies ended the 15th round atop the Australia conference after Friday's win over the Bulls in Canberra. That also ensures them third place in the overall table as one of the three conference leaders. They are 19 points behind the Crusaders and four points short of the fourth-place Hurricanes.
The Australia conference has been hard-fought all season with the lead regularly changing hands. The Brumbies and Rebels, separated by a single point, will likely continue to vie for first place while the Waratahs are barely hanging on to the tail of playoffs field after Saturday's loss to the Jaguares.
Argentina's Jaguares went clear atop the South Africa conference with that win, moving three points ahead of the Durban-based Sharks, which beat the Johannesburg-based Lions, beaten finalists in each of the last three years.
The win was the Jaguares fourth away from home this season and their second in succession after their ground-breaking win over the Hurricanes in Wellington.
They have a strong chance of hosting a playoffs match in Buenos Aires for the first time, but their recent success has revived old complaints that they are a national team in the guise of a Super Rugby side.
Former Wallabies and Waratahs hooker Phil Kearns said the Jaguares enjoy an unfair advantage because of their high ratio of test players.
"They're the national team," Kearns told Fox Sports. "They shouldn't even be in the comp."
"I think Argentina have been incredibly smart and have hoodwinked the rest of SANZAAR because they're going to have a magnificent World Cup team, there's no doubt about it. They've played together for the last three years."
The Jaguares face the Sharks next weekend in a match that will likely decide first place in South Africa. They then finish off with an almost certain win over the Sunwolves.
But only three points separate the second-place Sharks from the fifth-placed Stormers in South Africa, ensuring that race will go down to the wire.
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