Race for Super Rugby top spot goes down to final round

Nick Mulvenney |

The Wellington Hurricanes edged the Waikato Chiefs and the Auckland Blues were stunned by the struggling Canterbury Crusaders over the weekend to take the race for top spot in Super Rugby Pacific down to the final round of the regular season.

The competition’s forgiving playoff format means all 12 teams barring the NSW Waratahs still have a mathematical chance of post-season rugby after the penultimate week of round-robin play.

The Blues could have locked up top spot and home advantage throughout the playoffs with a win in Christchurch on Saturday afternoon combined with a loss for the second-placed Hurricanes on Friday.

Neither result came to pass with flyhalf Brett Cameron’s late penalty giving the Hurricanes a 20-17 win in Hamilton and a missed late sideline conversion from Blues pivot Harry Plummer handing the reigning champion Crusaders a 29-27 victory.

Although the Hurricanes drew level with the Blues at the top of the standings on 51 points, the Auckland club’s superior points difference tally means they will top the standings if they can get a bonus-point win over the Chiefs next week.

The ACT Brumbies took immediate advantage of the Chiefs’ slipup to secure at least third place in the final standings on 48 points with a 53-17 win over the seventh-placed Melbourne Rebels in Canberra on Friday night, ahead of a final-round clash with the ninth-placed Western Force.

Fullback Tom Wright, who scored two of the Australian side’s seven tries, was outstanding and the margin of victory might have been greater had the Brumbies not had three players yellow-carded in the second half.

The Chiefs are still assured of finishing at least fourth and are set to host the Queensland Reds in the playoff quarter-finals in a fortnight’s time.

The Reds, helped by a second hat-trick of the season from rookie winger Tim Ryan, cemented fifth place with a 59-13 drubbing of Perth-based Western Force in Brisbane on Saturday.

The Otago Highlanders secured one of the last three spots in the eight-team playoffs with a 39-3 victory over Fijian Drua in Sunday’s final match of round 14.

Fijian winger Jona Nareki returned from injury to score two tries and set up another as the Highlanders downed the eighth-placed Drua in Dunedin to move above the Rebels into sixth place.

Moana Pasifika kept alive their hopes of a maiden playoff campaign with a 27-12 win on Friday against the error-prone Waratahs, who have already confirmed that coach Darren Coleman will depart at the end of the season.

Coleman’s predecessor at the Sydney-based outfit, Rob Penney, looked on similarly shaky ground at the Crusaders but might have earned another year with Saturday’s gritty win over the Blues.

Super rugby champions for the last seven seasons, the Crusaders might still sneak into the playoffs with just a fourth win from 14 matches this season when they take on Moana Pasifika next weekend.

“I’ve said all year (that) we’ve had moments where it’s been small margins, today we got over the line,” Penney said after the Blues win.

“For the group to keep fighting like that, it’s really heart-warming.”