Two surprise results in South Africa scrambled the playoff race in rugby’s Super 14, leaving two New Zealand, one South African and one Australian team in the top four going into next weekend’s final round.
The sleeping Lions, in last place through most of the season and winless since the competition’s opening round on Feb. 15, beat the Waikato Chiefs 33-27 at Johannesburg on Saturday, severely damaging the Chiefs’ playoff chances.
Later in Cape Town, the second-place New South Wales Waratahs and the fourth-place Stormers drew 13-13, blurring the playoff picture.
That surprise result allowed the Wellington Hurricanes and Sharks — both 13th-round winners — to climb into the top four, removing the Stormers and Chiefs.
With one regular-season round remaining the Canterbury Crusaders have a 12-point lead at the top of the table and will host one semi-final on May 23. Six other teams will vie in the last round for three playoff vacancies as only seven points separate second and seventh place.
Wellington, in second place, have 40 points, a three-point break from third-placed New South Wales with a match remaining against the Auckland Blues, who beat the Otago Highlanders 40-15 on Saturday.
The Waratahs, third with 37 points after the draw, face their bitter traditional rivals, the Queensland Reds, in the last round.
The Reds are 11th, well out of playoffs contention, but they led until the late stages of their match against the Crusaders on Saturday before losing 27-21, showing that they have the potential to cause upsets.
In a bitter blow, however, Reds fullback Chris Latham suffered a serious shoulder injury which will rule him out of next week’s match — which would have been his last for Queensland before his departure for England — leaving him stranded on 99 Super tournament games.
The Sharks, who were unbeaten through the first nine rounds of the competition, dropped out of the top four with three straight losses but returned to fourth place on Saturday with a 33-14 win over the Cheetahs. Their clash with the Chiefs next week is the toughest and most significant of the last-round matchups.
Auckland improved from eighth to fifth place, on 36 points, with a bonus-point win over the Highlanders, the Stormers fell back to sixth place on 36 points and the Chiefs dropped to seventh on 33, left with only a slim hope of qualification.