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A mystery "who's in it?": Super 14 down to wire for semifinal spots

A mystery "who's in it?": Super 14 down to wire for semifinal spots

In the manner of any good thriller, Super 14 rugby has managed to preserve its mystery until the last page.
Weekend losses by the Canterbury Crusaders and Auckland Blues left six teams in contention for the semifinals ahead of a final round in which everything, including home-field advantage, will be decided.
The Crusaders, who lost 15-6 to the ACT Brumbies in Canberra _ allowing Brumbies stalwarts George Gregan, Stephen Larkham and Jeremy Paul to bow out as winners in their last home match _ left the defending champions with a tenuous grip on first place.
Only six points separate the Crusaders, on 41 points at the top of the table, and the Brumbies, on 35 points in sixth place. On that basis, the Crusaders are not yet guaranteed a semifinal place and home advantage in the playoffs could fall to any of four teams.
The Sharks, with a 33-3 win over the Lions, have taken over second place with 40 points, ahead of the Blues and Bulls who have 37. The Blues retained third place on points differential, in spite of Friday's 40-19 loss to the Bulls _ their third straight loss in a steady descent from first place.
Final-round matches pit the Crusaders against the Waikato Chiefs, whose 28-23 win over the New South Wales Waratahs left them in fifth place on 36 points, one point out of the top four.
The Blues play the Western Force, who thrashed the Cheetahs 45-17, scoring seven tries, but whose seventh-place total of 32 points and points differential of plus 11 leaves them with no real hope of making the playoffs.
The Force can reach 37 points, the current boundary of the playoffs, but would need to beat the Blues by a massive score, and also have the Bulls lose to sneak into fourth place.
The Brumbies play the Otago Highlanders, whose slim playoffs hopes were extinguished when they lost 22-21 to the Wellington Hurricanes on Friday, flyhalf Nick Evans missing a last-minute conversion which would have won the match.
The Sharks play the Stormers in an all-South African final-round contest.
The Bulls have a home match against the last-placed Queensland Reds, beaten 37-24 by the Stormers on Saturday, and therefore have the easiest assignment of any of the playoffs contenders.
All of the top six teams have valid semifinal hopes, and those hopes were improved by the Brumbies' win over the Crusaders which showed the defending champions are beatable by any team who can defend aggressively for 80 minutes.
Both sides took their points from goal kicks and the Brumbies were particularly effective at shutting down the Crusaders' backs, attacking breakdowns and placing steady pressure on All Blacks flyhalf Daniel Carter.
The Blues were similarly upset by the Bulls' aggressive defense, which targeted and ultimately negated its key playmakers. After leading the Super 14 for nine weeks, the Blues have been unable to arrest a late-season slump.
"It's the business end of the competition now and the Bulls played with that desperation, they played extremely well," Blues captain Troy Flavell said. "We're still right in this competition and we've got to get on that plane and begin our prep for the Western Force."
Halfback Fourie du Preez, who was man of the match against the Blues, suffered a serious shoulder injury which will likely rule him out of next week's round and the playoffs, at considerable cost to the Bulls.
The Sharks' emphatic win over the Lions lifted their hopes of a home semifinal ahead of their clash with the Stormers.
"After what's happened in the last 24 hours we were desperate for the five points, it means a lot to us," said Sharks captain John Smit.
The Chiefs kept up their unlikely attack on the playoffs with their sixth win in seven games, scoring a late try to defeat the Waratahs.
"It was pretty ugly," said Chiefs captain Jono Gibbes. "The Waratahs disrupted us and knocked us off our stride. But I guess four points is the main thing."
The Hurricanes' stuttering win over the Highlanders was made costly by a knee injury to All Blacks lock Jason Eaton, who will be sidelined for six months and has been ruled out of New Zealand's World Cup campaign.
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Weekend summaries:
Wellington 22 (Jimmy Gopperth, Hosea Gear tries; Piri Weepu 4 penalties), Otago 21 (Nick Evans, Toby Morland tries; Evans conversion, 3 penalties). HT, 17-13.
Waikato 28 (Sitiveni Sivivatu, Liam Messam, Tane Tuipulotu tries; Stephen Donald 2 conversions, 3 penalties), New South Wales 23 (Sam Norton-Knight, Lachlan Turner tries; Peter Hewat 2 conversions, 3 penalties). HT, 13-13.
Western Force 45 (Scott Staniforth 2, Ryan Cross 2, Digby Ioane, A.J. Whalley, Tai McIsaac tries; Matt Giteau 5 conversions), Cheetahs 17 (Phillip Burger, Ryno Van Der Merwe, Kabamba Floors tries; Willem De Waal conversion). HT, 21-0.
Bulls 40 (Wikus van Heerden, Pedrie Wannenburg, Fourie Du Preez, Heini Adams tries; Derick Hougaard 4 conversions, 3 penalties, dropped goal), Auckland 19 (Troy Flavell try; Isa Nacewa conversion, 4 penalites). HT, 20-9.
ACT 15 (Stirling Mortlock 3 penalties, Julian Huxley penalty, Stephen Larkham dropped goal), Canterbury 6 (Daniel Carter 2 penalties). HT, 9-3.
Sharks 33 (J.P. Pietersen 2, Jacques Botes 2 tries; Percy Montgomery 2 conversions; Montgomery 2, Francois Steyn penalties), Lions 3 (Earl Rose penalty). HT, 19-3.
Stormers 37 (Luke Watson 2, Brent Russell 2, Joe van Niekerk tries; Peter Grant 3 conversions, 2 penalties), Queensland 24 (Ben Tune, Sean Hardman tries; Clinton Shifcofske conversion, 4 penalties). HT, 20-12.


Updated : 2021-05-14 10:25 GMT+08:00