Three of Super 14 rugby's yearlong Super Four -- Canterbury, New South Wales and Wellington -- officially booked semifinal places on the weekend. The ACT Brumbies will have to wait another week.
The fourth-place Brumbies could have become the final team to qualify for the semifinals by beating New Zealand side Otago Saturday. But the Highlanders upset the Brumbies 28-26 at Canberra on a late penalty goal by fullback Ben Blair.
On Friday, defending champion and first-place Canterbury's 35-17 win over South Africa's Bulls assured the Crusaders a postseason spot, while the New South Wales Waratahs automatically advanced past the round-robin phase when the Bulls lost.
The Waratahs could have enhanced their chances for a home semifinal, but lost to Waikato 37-33 Saturday. However, New South Wales picked up two bonus points for scoring four tries and for losing by fewer than seven points, moving them into second place, three points behind Canterbury.
Third-place Wellington advanced Friday with a 26-22 win over the Queensland Reds, leaving the Hurricanes a point behind the Waratahs and giving New Zealand sides three wins in three tries against Australian teams on the weekend.
The three semifinalists and the Brumbies have been in the top four since the third round. The semifinals are set for the weekend of May 19-20 following next weekend's 14th and final round.
Later Saturday, the Sharks defeated the Stormers 24-17 to retain a slim chance of qualifying for the playoffs, the Western Force won its first game by edging the Cheetahs 16-14; and the Cats beat the Blues 34-33.
At Durban, South Africa, tries by Percy Montgomery, Jacques Botes and Waylon Murray gave the Sharks a mathematical chance of qualifying in fourth spot.
The Brumbies must lose without scoring a bonus point against the Crusaders, the Bulls must lose to the Stormers, and the Sharks have to win with a bonus point against the Force next week to qualify.
"We were trying everything from everywhere to get that fourth try, so that made things a bit messy, which suits a team like the Stormers," said Sharks hooker John Smit.
At Kimberley, South Africa, a 71st-minute intercept try by Force center Scott Staniforth gave the new ly formed franchise its inaugural win in the competition. It had previously drawn with defending champion Canterbury and the Cats.
"We had a couple of draws in the past few weeks and in the end it was probably our worst game which gave us the win," Force captain Nathan Sharpe said.
At Johannesburg, South Africa, Springbok center Jaque Fourie scored a hat trick of tries as the Cats withstood a 19-point scoring streak by Auckland to win its second game of the season.
The Blues, which trailed 20-0 and 34-14, scored five tries to the Cats' four.
The Bulls could sneak into the semifinals with a bonus-point win next weekend and a Brumbies loss, giving both teams 38 points. But there would have to be a substantial shift in the points-for and against differential which now favors the Brumbies.
At Hamilton, New Zealand, All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina scored two tries in the Chiefs' win over New South Wales. The Waratahs had conceded only 10 tries in 11 previous matches this season.
"There were just too many one-on-one misses tonight," said Waratahs captain Chris Whitaker, who made his 116th super rugby appearance to become New South Wales' most-capped player.