The Auckland Blues and Pretoria-based Bulls, heading in opposite directions in Super 14 rugby, play each other today in a match greatly affecting their semi-final hopes.
The Bulls have risen to fourth place on the championship table with wins in their last two matches. The Blues, competition leaders for three-quarters of the season, have lost their last two -- to the Sharks and Stormers.
A win for the Bulls at home would strengthen their claim to a home semi-final, with only one match remaining against the bottom-placed Queensland Reds, while the Blues would surrender home playoff advantage if they lose to the Bulls and to the Western Force in Perth a week later.
The Blues appeared home playoff certainties during the nine weeks they spent at the top of the table between the second and 10th rounds.
They gave up the competition lead two weeks ago to the Canterbury Crusaders and are now clinging to second place, ahead of the Sharks and Bulls who have kept up South Africa's two-pronged challenge for semi-final places.
Behind those teams the Waikato Chiefs, the Force, the ACT Brumbies and, technically, the Otago Highlanders still hold playoffs hopes, though the Force and Highlanders are dependent not only on their own form but that of other teams.
The Chiefs are level with the Bulls on 32 points, narrowly behind on points differential, and are in the middle of a rich run of form which has brought them five wins from their last six games.
The Brumbies are a point behind the Chiefs and Bulls, in sixth place with 31 points, but face the stumbling block of a match against the Crusaders tomorrow.
The Chiefs face the Crusaders in their final round-robin match, similarly complicating their playoffs run-up.
The Crusaders enjoy a four-point championship lead with two rounds remaining and seem certain to claim a home semi-final, though their finish against the Brumbies and Chiefs is not an easy one.
"The record says that playing the Brumbies in Canberra is one of the most difficult assignments in Super rugby, and that is certainly our experience," Crusaders coach Robbie Deans said. "They've got the better of us on the last couple of occasions we've been there. We're under no illusions as to how difficult the task will be on Saturday night."
The match features a clash between the Crusaders' Dan Carter and the Brumbies' Stephen Larkham, the two best flyhalves in world rugby. It will also mark the last appearance for the Brumbies in Canberra by Larkham, Wallabies scrumhalf George Gregan and hooker Jeremy Paul.
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