The Canterbury Crusaders wrapped up top spot going into the Super 14 play-offs but the battle for the remaining three berths stayed wide open after the penultimate round over the weekend.
With one game to play, six teams hold a mathematical chance of joining the Crusaders in the semifinals after the Golden Lions upset the Waikato Chiefs and the New South Wales Waratahs and the Western Stormers battled to a draw.
The Wellington Hurricanes and Waratahs are the best prospects for a home semi with the Stormers, Coastal Sharks, Auckland Blues and Chiefs scrapping it out for fourth spot.
The second-placed Hurricanes and sixth-placed Blues are separated by just four points.
Meanwhile, 12 points clear in the lead, the Canterbury Crusaders showed the depth of their championship qualities as they came from behind to beat a brave Queensland Reds 27-21 on Saturday.
With little at stake in the match, the Crusaders had allowed the Reds to build a 21-8 lead with 15 minutes remaining.
But when coach Robbie Deans sent out the message he wanted his side in winning form for the knock-out stage of the competition, the Crusaders upped the tempo and ran in three tries during the closing stages.
The Waratahs slipped from second to third behind the Hurricanes when they were held to a pulsating 13-13 draw by the Stormers.
With scoring opportunities negated by pouring rain throughout the match, the two points earned for the draw could be costly for both sides in their challenge for a home semifinal.
”It feels like a loss,” lamented Stormers captain Jean de Villiers after his side came from 5-6 down at half-time to lead 13-6 before a sideline conversion from Kurtley Beale levelled the scores after a late try by Lote Tuqiri.
The Hurricanes were elevated into second place as they overcame heavy rain, swirling wind and a ferocious defence to beat the Western Force 21-10.
The Blues kept up their charge, taking maximum points by beating the Otago Highlanders 40-15, with Nick Evans in exceptional form as he contributed 23 points from two tries, two conversions and three penalties.
Next week the Blues host the Hurricanes in what will be a virtual quarterfinal showdown.
The big losers on the weekend were the Chiefs, who saw their outside chance of a top-four finish all but disappear when they were beaten 33-27 by the bottom-placed Lions, who secured their first win in 11 matches.
The Chiefs paid a heavy price for having prop Ben May sent off on 64 minutes for stamping a grounded opponent in the face.
The offence occurred at the source of a move that finished with wing Lelia Masaga dotting down for a try that was then disallowed because of the incident.
The Chiefs’ final match, and the final match of the regular season, is against the fifth-placed Sharks in Durban, with the winner requiring both the Blues and Stormers to lose if they are to enter the play-offs.
The Sharks collected a crucial five points on the weekend with a brace of late tries from Odwa Ndungane to secure a 33-14 win over the Central Cheetahs.
Ndungane scored twice in the final two minutes, adding to a hat-trick by flanker Jacques Botes earlier on.
”We live to fight another day,” said captain AJ Venter. ”It wasn’t easy, but we got the five points and that’s all that matters.”
In the remaining round 12 match, the Northern Bulls extinguished any faint hopes the ACT Brumbies had of making the playoffs with a 28-17 win in Pretoria. — AFP