Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Nervous last round for comp's top six

The Chiefs will be desperate to prevail against the Blues in Auckland on Saturday.

The Chiefs will be desperate to beat the Blues in Auckland on Saturday. Photo / Christine Cornege
The Chiefs will be desperate to beat the Blues in Auckland on Saturday. Photo / Christine Cornege

With one week of Super rugby remaining, the top six are confirmed, but the final order is anything but certain.

The recent weekend's round proved once again that nothing is a given in this competition - the Crusaders thrashing the defending champion Chiefs 43-15 in Christchurch, the Highlanders stunning the Hurricanes 49-44 in Wellington to move off the bottom of the table, and the Durban-based Sharks almost upsetting the Bulls in Pretoria.

Apart from Todd Blackadder's outfit, the Bulls were the biggest beneficiaries of the Crusaders' stunning five-tries-to-two victory as they moved ahead of the Chiefs to top the table thanks to their nervy 20-19 win.

The Cheetahs put the final nail in the Blues' campaign and kept their own alive with a 34-13 victory in Bloemfontein.

Although the play-offs' participants are confirmed, there is still plenty at stake.

The top two teams have the luxury of a week off following their final regular season match and their next task is to host a semifinal. The third- and fourth-placed teams host qualifying matches, the winners travelling for the semifinals.

For that reason, the Chiefs will be desperate to beat the Blues in Auckland on Saturday. One competition point will give them the New Zealand conference win, but if they are victorious, and the Bulls lose what promises to be an epic encounter against the Stormers in Cape Town, Dave Rennie's men will top the competition. Not only will they host a semifinal, but also the final if they get that far.

"It is crucial for us," Rennie said yesterday. "If we win we get a week off and a home semi, which is certainly something we have been striving for since week one. We will put ourselves in a good position even though we were disappointed with last Friday. Our fate is still in our own hands."

Rennie, a self-confessed keen student of the points table, talked recently about the spectre of having to travel to Pretoria to play the Bulls. It's definitely something they want to avoid.

Last season the Chiefs bounced back from consecutive losses to the Crusaders and Hurricanes to beat Blackadder's men in the semifinal in Hamilton before crushing the travel-weary Sharks in the final. Rennie called the recent Crusaders' defeat at AMI Stadium "embarrassing", but it will at least serve as a wake-up call. A similar slip-up against the Blues could have dire consequences.

The Brumbies, in third, travel to Perth to play the Force and will be cheering for the Blues and Stormers.

The Crusaders, Reds and Cheetahs round out the top six. The Crusaders host the Hurricanes with payback on their minds. Mark Hammett's men are the only team to beat the Crusaders at the new AMI Stadium and they did so in controversial circumstances.

One of the other big unknowns is how the Wallaby players in the Brumbies and Reds react one week after the immense effort and disappointment of the series loss to the Lions. The Brumbies lost centre Pat McCabe to a neck injury in the first test, while the Reds will be sweating on the mental and physical state of halfback Will Genia, who took on a huge workload for the Wallabies and was hampered by a leg injury throughout.

Final flourish

*Bulls (63 points) v Stormers in Cape Town
*Chiefs (61) v Blues in Auckland
*Brumbies (59) v Force in Perth
*Crusaders (56) v Hurricanes in Christchurch
*Reds (54) v Waratahs in Sydney
*Cheetahs (50) bye

- APNZ

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