The Blues, after three victories in a row, will have their playoff credentials tested to the fullest by the Stormers in Cape Town next Saturday but their fortunes remain intertwined with those of the Highlanders thanks to the idiosyncrasies of Super Rugby's finals format.

Both New Zealand teams are effectively going for one playoffs spot, and with Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo shown a red card for a dangerous tackle against the Bulls at Loftus Versfeld in the second half with the score 10-10 yesterday, supporters of the Blues would have hoped the finals door had opened slightly wider for their team.

Alas for them and the Blues, a red card for lock RG Snyman when the Bulls were in a promising attacking position, and a converted try to Malakai Fekitoa, put paid to that.

The Crusaders have kept their position on top of the table following their 20-12 victory over the Hurricanes in Christchurch, and they face another huge test against the Chiefs, rested following a bye, in Fiji next Friday, but their closest challengers at the moment are the Lions, last year's finalists, who have almost been given a free pass due to the fact they won't play a New Zealand team during the round-robin.


Three of the Lions' remaining four matches are at their Ellis Park fortress, putting them in a perfect position should Scott Robertson's men slip up, and with derby matches against the Chiefs and Highlanders to come, that's still entirely possible.

The format geared towards providing a guaranteed path to the finals for the South African teams in particular, is a farcical state of affairs which could blow up in the face of Sanzaar should the Johannesburg-based Lions win the competition, and there is farce also in the fact that the Blues could finish with more points than potential quarter-finalists the Sharks, Stormers and Brumbies, and yet miss out on the playoffs.

The 50-32 bonus point victory by Tana Umaga's men over the Cheetahs took them to 31 competition points, with the Highlanders on 36.

The big Blues victory, combined with the Sharks' shock 35-32 defeat to the Kings in Port Elizabeth, allowed them to narrow the gap on the men from Durban, but that comparison is purely academic.

Only four New Zealand teams can make the playoffs (the conference winner and the next best three in the Australasian group), meaning it's possible the Blues could finish on top of potentially the Sharks (wild card), Stormers and Brumbies (conference winners), and watch as that trio progress ahead of them.

The format, brought into focus again by the Lions' 13-6 defeat of the Brumbies in Canberra on Friday which put them into the competition lead before the Crusaders regained it, was talked about by Hurricanes coach Chris Boyd and his counterpart Scott Robertson after their teams' blockbuster in AMI Stadium.

"The good thing for them [the Crusaders], and I was talking to Razor [Robertson] about it, is that they're still alive to potentially finish No 1 in the whole thing," Boyd said afterwards. "The Lions are probably going to go through and only have one loss. If somebody finishes with two losses, that's going to make it tough because they will end up travelling to Africa."

Robertson said: "You have to make sure you take every opportunity. If you don't, it's a long way back to the highveld. It's critical, we've got a couple of big derby games to go as well and that starts with one in Suva next Friday night."

The Blues, who will clash with former assistant coach Paul Feeney - now with the Stormers - for the first time, are still in the mix but only just. They need a stumble from the Highlanders, too.