The Auckland Blues, having won seven successive games, were riding high at the top of the Super rugby table a month ago and looking favourites to secure a top-two finish.
Now, they head into the final round of matches on a four-match losing streak and need to beat the Otago Highlanders next Friday at Eden Park to ensure they make the top six play-offs for the southern hemisphere provincial tournament.
Their latest loss, a 23-16 defeat at the hands of the Canterbury Crusaders, dropped them to fourth in the standings on 56 points, one behind the seven-times champions, who play the Hurricanes in Wellington next week.
“Without a doubt, we’re still there and it’s a tight competition,” Blues coach Pat Lam told Fairfax media on Sunday.
“Everyone’s still got to get the points on the board. We play the Highlanders on Friday but we won’t know exactly where we finish until Sunday morning.”
Three of the Blues’ past four losses have come to the Queensland Reds, Stormers and Crusaders — all now ranked in the top three — after tightly contested matches and the game in Timaru on Saturday at least showed they were close to being back to their best, Lam said.
All Blacks lock Ali Williams constantly pilfered the ball off the Crusaders throw, and while there were times they resorted to helter-skelter play, when they needed to tighten up and play possession the Blues were as effective as their opponents, who required a late try to Zac Guildford to seal victory.
“That’s the best we’ve played in the four weeks in terms of our commitment and that’s what I was after,” Lam added.
“If we can bring that effort and attitude along with a bit more accuracy next week we’ll be fine.”
While the New Zealand conference will be determined next week, the South African conference will provide most of the fireworks when the fifth-placed Bulls clash with the sixth-placed Sharks at Loftus Versfeld.
The Springboks-laden Bulls, champions the last two years, shrugged off a sluggish start to their season and won a sixth successive game with a 19-16 victory over the conference-leading Stormers in Cape Town.
The Pretoria-based Bulls would loom as dangerous opponents in the play-offs but their final encounter could well be a do-or-die match for both teams, with the seventh-placed New South Wales Waratahs poised to sneak into the playoffs with a win over the ACT Brumbies in Sydney next week.
Only a point behind the Bulls and the Sharks, the Sydney-based Waratahs kept their postseason hopes alive with a 33-7 win over the Highlanders but face a far trickier hurdle than the Brumbies’ 13th place in the standings would suggest.
The Canberra-based side have endured a miserable season in which their coach was sacked and his replacement publicly questioned his players’ heart.
However, the Brumbies have saved their best for the tailend of the season, upsetting the competition-leading Reds before beating the Melbourne Rebels on Friday as they farewell captain Matt Giteau and a number of other club stalwarts.
“I think next week is a big one for us,” Giteau, who will play for French club Toulon after the World Cup, said after his side’s 32-17 victory over the Rebels. “There’s a lot of rivalry [with the Waratahs] and we’re looking forward to it.” – Reuters