Rugby: Highlanders a win away from playoffs place

By Steve Hepburn

Shane Christie of the highlanders tackles Bundee Aki of the Chiefs during the round 17 Super Rugby match. The Highlanders beat the Chiefs 29-25 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Photo / Getty Images
Shane Christie of the highlanders tackles Bundee Aki of the Chiefs during the round 17 Super Rugby match. The Highlanders beat the Chiefs 29-25 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin. Photo / Getty Images

The Highlanders may not even have to win one of their final two games to gain a playoff spot as the cards continue to fall their way.

But one win would guarantee playoff action for Jamie Joseph's side and a first trip to the finals in over a decade.

The Highlanders sit fourth on the ladder, tied on points with the Crusaders but ranked behind them as the Crusaders have one more win.

After a weekend of close results, the Highlanders find themselves in a good position, knowing it is up to them to make the playoffs, something they have not managed since 2002.

They did the job at the start of the weekend, beating the Chiefs 29-25 at Forsyth Barr Stadium, and sat back to see what the other sides in playoff contention would serve up.

The Crusaders could have skipped clear of other New Zealand team if they had comprehensively beaten the Hurricanes in Wellington, but they struggled throughout the match and were beaten 16-9.

If Beauden Barrett had slotted a conversion in the final five minutes, he would have denied the Crusaders a bonus point, and left the Highlanders in third place, but the All Black just missed from out wide.

The Waratahs - who play the Highlanders in Sydney on Sunday - went to the top of the table with a resounding 39-8 win over the Brumbies on Saturday night.

The Blues then did the Highlanders a favour with a 40-14 drubbing of the Force, putting a big dent in the Western Australian side's playoff hopes.

The Sharks, long-term leaders, and the other South African sides did not play at the weekend.

One advantage the Highlanders have is that the two teams right below them on the table - the Hurricanes and the Brumbies - both have byes to come, where they will receive no points.

The Hurricanes play the Chiefs this Friday night in Hamilton, and will then twiddle their thumbs in the final round, praying for a miracle.

The Brumbies get a rest this weekend and then meet the Force in the final round in a critical match in Canberra.

The Highlanders finish the regular season with a match against the Crusaders in Christchurch on July 12.

The Highlanders have the advantage of playing the Waratahs on Sunday after everyone else has played, and they will know exactly where they stand.

There are numerous scenarios, but the Highlanders would be happy if the Chiefs beat the Hurricanes and lose to the Blues the following week.

If the Blues lose to the Crusaders and do not get a bonus point, they have no chance of catching the Highlanders. Then, if the Blues beat the defending champion Chiefs at Eden Park on July 11, it will do the Highlanders a huge favour.

The Bulls, back on 33 points, cannot be counted out, but appear to have too many teams between them and the top six to make a challenge.

The Highlanders will not be getting out the calculators. As far as they are concerned, it is just about themselves and the final two matches of the season. Otago Daily Times

- NZ Herald

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