Kiwi teams target clean sweep of Super Rugby quarterfinals

By STEVE McMORRAN ,

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Australia rugby player Bernard Foley runs with the ball during a captains run in Sydney, Australia, Friday, June 24, 2016.

Australia rugby player Bernard Foley runs with the ball during a captains run in Sydney, Australia, Friday, June 24, 2016. (Photo: (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby's quarterfinals this weekend contain the scenario for tournament organizers that all four semifinal places could go to New Zealand teams.

Four of New Zealand's five teams qualified for the playoffs and, on current form, all four could progress to the penultimate weekend.

That will trouble SANZAAR, the tournament's governing body which set out to structure a competition this season which ensures playoffs matches are shared across Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

The tournament format allows teams with inferior win-loss records in Australia and South Africa to host playoff matches, ensuring those matches are spread across a range to time zones for broadcasters and fans. A New Zealand sweep of quarterfinals would lump both semifinals in New Zealand.

The defending champion Highlanders play away to the ACT Brumbies in Canberra on Friday; the Wellington-based Hurricanes, who finished the regular season in first place, host the Durban-based Sharks on Saturday ahead of matches in Johannesburg between the Lions and the seven time-champion Crusaders and in Cape Town between the Stormers and Hamilton-based Chiefs.

The Dunedin-based Highlanders have already beaten the Brumbies this season, 23-10 in round 10, which was among 21 wins by New Zealand teams over Australian teams in 24 matches during the regular season.

The Crusaders beat the Lions 43-37 in round six, and in round 10 the Hurricanes won 50-17 at Ellis Park, making the Lions' home advantage less imposing.

The Stormers' strength is harder to measure because they didn't play any New Zealand teams during the regular season. The Chiefs will go into the match with some confidence, having won six of their eight away games this season, including matches in South Africa, Australia and Argentina.

The Hurricanes lost 32-15 to the Sharks in Durban in round 11, indicating their match against the eighth-placed qualifiers might be closer than it appears.

But the Hurricanes are stronger now, having posted five straight wins, including victories over the Highlanders and Crusaders.

Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd believes the quarterfinals will be close, and he's being cautious.

"The travel will be a factor but it's not going to be THE factor," he said. "Sides can win this competition home or away."

He said the Stormers, the Lions and the Brumbies were all difficult to handle on home soil, and he's not yet ready to proclaim "there's four Kiwi sides going to be in" the semifinals.

Stormers coach Robbie Fleck has joined in criticism of the format which has allowed his team to reach the playoffs without being tested against the best in the competition.

"Certainly the Kiwi sides have shown they're the best in the competition," Fleck said. "You want to match yourself against the best throughout the year.

"We have had the so-called easier route to get a home quarter-final and we are excited that we are going to play one of the best teams, and hopefully it goes well for us."

The Lions and Crusaders will enter the Johannesburg match with dissimilar preparations. Lions coach Johann Ackermann rested 15 players for last weekend's match against the Jaguares and, in doing so, gave up overall first place to the Hurricanes. They may be fresh, but possibly under-prepared.

The Crusaders have been beaten by the Hurricanes and Chiefs in three weeks since the tournament resumed after June international matches. They didn't arrive in Johannesburg until late Tuesday, and have lost Fiji star Nemani Nadolo and All Blacks prop Joe Moody to injuries.

The Lions are deemed to have the best chance of any team to stop a New Zealand sweep and might be strengthened by the unexpected return from injury of captain Warren Whiteley, who injured a shoulder injury 20 days ago and was initially expected to be sidelined for six weeks.

The Brumbies could also be reinforced against the Highlanders by the return of Wallabies flanker David Pocock, who missed six weeks with a fractured eye socket.

"To have him in these big games will be brilliant," Brumbies playmaker Matt Toomua said. The Highlanders "like to play that really fast footy and with a guy like (Pocock) either stealing the ball or slowing it down definitely plays into our hands."

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