WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The remaining rounds of Super Rugby's regular season are likely to draw attention to an under-performing Australian conference in which the ACT Brumbies and New South Wales Waratahs are locked in a tight race for one playoff spot.
The Brumbies and Waratahs hold the first two places in the Aussie conference with matching four-win, seven-loss records, although the Brumbies hold a four-point lead after taking six bonus points from their 11 matches.
Under Super Rugby's contentious playoff format, the team that tops the Australian conference will be awarded home advantage in the first round of playoffs on July 21 or 22, even though their record might be inferior to other qualifying teams.
The Australian contenders face tough matches in the 14th round this weekend: the Brumbies will play Argentina's Jaguares in Buenos Aires and the Waratahs travel to Dunedin to play a Highlanders team on a club-record eight-match winning streak.
Overall, the Brumbies might have the easier finish to the regular season with matches against the Jaguares, Melbourne Rebels, Queensland Reds and Hamilton-based Chiefs. The Waratahs will play the Highlanders, Chiefs, Jaguares and Western Force and will need to win most of those games to qualify.
"I've read a little bit this week that (the Brumbies) have the perceivably easier run home, but that means nothing to us," Waratahs center David Horwitz said. "I believe if we get four wins on the way home we will be in the finals so that's all in our control."
The Waratahs' path to the playoffs seems likely to be blocked by their two matches against New Zealand sides as no Australian team has beaten a New Zealand opponent in 18 matches in 2017. Wallabies fullback Israel Folau says the Waratahs believe they can change that record.
"You've got to be confident in going over there (to New Zealand)," Folau said. "That's all we're thinking about. It's not rocket science. The challenge is, because we play New Zealand teams, to not go into our shells."
The Brumbies received a major boost in their bid to reach the playoffs when they beat the Southern Kings 19-10 in Bloemfontein last weekend to become the first Australian team to win in South Africa this season. Rookie winger Andrew Muirhead said Saturday's win had given the Brumbies' campaign new impetus.
"Most of our losses have been pretty close losses so it's good to be able to get one of those close games away," Muirhead said. "Obviously getting another win this week will put us in the right direction.
The buoyant attitude of the Brumbies and Waratahs players appears at odds with the ongoing turmoil in Australian rugby and the fact that on a combined championship table, the Brumbies' 23 points would only be good enough for 10th place and the Waratahs' 19 points would place them 12th.
The fact that one of the two will receive a home playoff at the expense of better-performed teams rankles in other Super Rugby nations. There is already growing anger at the inability of the Australian Rugby Union to decide which of its five teams will be cut from Super Rugby next season.
The coaches of the most endangered teams, Melbourne and Western Force, say some players are suffering mental health issues as a result of anxiety over their futures.
The head of the New Zealand Rugby Players' Association, Rob Nichol, said this week Australian Rugby's inaction is damaging Super Rugby.
"If you are going to give an undertaking to reduce teams surely you have worked out how and who and everyone is on board prior to making that agreement," Nichol said. "The legacy of Super Rugby; the teams, the players, the fans don't deserve this."
The Blues and Chiefs open the round on Friday at Auckland, followed by Queensland's match against the Force in Brisbane. The Sunwolves play South Africa's Cheetahs in Tokyo on Saturday afternoon, followed by the Dunedin match and by the Rebels vs. Crusaders in Melbourne.
In South African matches, the Bulls play the Hurricanes in Pretoria, the Sharks and Stormers play at Durban and in a rare Sunday afternoon match, the Lions take on the Southern Kings in Johannesburg.