The New South Wales Waratahs and Western Stormers headline Super 14 rugby's make-or-break penultimate regular round with nine teams still in with a chance of reaching the top-four play-offs.
Only glamor side the Canterbury Crusaders, the most successful franchise in Super rugby, are already assured of entering the knock-out phase and their last two games are against the lowly Queensland Reds and Otago Highlanders.
Ten points behind the six-times champions, the Waratahs lead a logjam teams which will start to unravel when the Wellington Hurricanes host the Western Force on tonight.
The Waratahs (37 points), Hurricanes (36) and Western Stormers (35) make up the top four with the Crusaders, while the clutch of contenders behind them includes the Waikato Chiefs (33), Coastal Sharks (32), and Auckland Blues (31).
Three points behind the Blues, the ACT Brumbies and Western Force retain mathematical chances of making the finals.
Tomorrow’s match-up between the Waratahs and Stormers is a defining moment for both sides who play the unimpressive Reds and Lions respectively in the final round.
“It’s like semi-final week in Cape Town,” said Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie. “We’ve been busy with the local press and the sports pages are dominated by this game. It’s going to be a memorable night for our guys at Newlands.”
The Stormers have a psychological edge in the top-four clash, playing in their Cape Town fortress where they have won all their home games since being beaten by the Crusaders in February.
Meanwhile the Waratahs, whose winning streak was snapped by the Bulls last week, will be without injured Matt Dunning and with fellow prop Al Baxter struggling to regain fitness.
The Hurricanes will need to be at their best as the Force look to reproduce the form which saw them upset the Chiefs with an injury-time penalty last week.
A bonus-point win would keep the Hurricanes’ home semi-final hopes alive while the Force know their season is over if they cannot produce another shock result.
Of the fringe semi-final contenders, the Chiefs, the Sharks and the Blues all have an accommodating draw with matches against sides no longer holding even a remote chance of qualifying.
The Chiefs, needing to get their season back on track have a winnable outing against the Lions before facing the Sharks in an all-or-nothing encounter the following week.
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