Top 4 found in Super Rugby
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The conference winners in Super Rugby are now known and the Wellington-based Hurricanes have locked in fourth place to decide quarterfinal venues a week before the end of the regular season.
Defending champions the Crusaders will finish first in the New Zealand conference and on the overall table; the ACT Brumbies will finish top in Australia; and Argentina's Jaguares for the first time will top the Africa conference.
That means quarterfinals will be held in Buenos Aires, Canberra, Christchurch and Wellington but match-ups will be finally decided in next weekend's last regular season round. As many as eight teams remain in contention for four remaining playoffs spots, though the chances of some are vanishingly small and dependent on the outcome of other games.
After making a spectacular return to form on Saturday with a 66-0 win over the Melbourne Rebels, the Crusaders have moved nine points clear of the Hurricanes in the New Zealand conference. They have the only bye in the final round and can sit back contentedly, nursing injuries and watching as the last drama of the regular season plays out.
South Africa is well placed to have four teams in the playoffs, including the Jaguares who play in that conference and will host a quarterfinal in Buenos Aires for the first time. Immediately behind the top four are the Pretoria-based Bulls on 36 points, the Johannesburg-based Lions on 35 and the Cape Town-based Stormers on 34.
The Rebels, also on 34 points despite Saturday's 10-try mauling by the Crusaders, are in eighth place also with 34 points.
The Durban-based Sharks on 33 points are still in the race while the Hamilton-based Chiefs and Dunedin-based Highlanders on 31 are still alive but not entirely in control of their own fate. The New South Wales Waratahs on 30 points after Saturday's 35-24 loss to the Brumbies are on the distant fringe of playoffs contention, unlikely to qualify.
In critical matches in the final round the Highlanders play the Waratahs, the Rebels play the Chiefs, the Stormers play the Sharks and the Bulls play the Lions in the last match of the regular season.
Teams now in the the quarterfinals or on the brink will have been given pause for thought by the effortless nature of the Crusaders' win over a top-eight team, the well-performed Rebels. The back three of wingers Sevu Reece and Braydon Ennor and fullback David Havili shared eight tries as the Crusaders made the Rebels pay for defending on a narrow front, leaving their flanks exposed by kicks.
After a week off, the Crusaders are likely to be refreshed for a home quarterfinal, strengthened by the return from injury of All Blacks front rowers Owen Franks and Codie Taylor.
"In just over a week's time we've got some big decisions about our squad with Owen Franks coming back, Codie Taylor coming back as well," coach Scott Robertson said.
"To win a championship, a lot has got to go right. Full squad, full team. To give every chance to go through in that finals series, you need to have the opportunity to pick your best squad."