South Africa’s Western Stormers are in pole position to host this year’s Super 15 final after leapfrogging New Zealand’s Waikato Chiefs into top spot in the contest’s last regular round over the weekend.
Jake White’s ACT Brumbies were the big losers when they went out after slumping to a home defeat by the lowly Auckland Blues, letting defending champions the Queensland Reds capture the Australia conference and a spot in the playoffs.
The Reds, who thumped the NSW Waratahs 32-16 in a bonus-point win, will have home advantage against South Africa’s Coastal Sharks on Saturday, while the Canterbury Crusaders host the Northern Bulls in the other opening playoff game.
The Stormers, who edged out the Melbourne Rebels 26-21 to finish top of the table, and the Chiefs, 28-25 losers to the Wellington Hurricanes, have byes next weekend.
If the Stormers win their semi-final in Cape Town on July 28, they will have home-ground advantage for the southern hemisphere championship decider the following week.
The South Africans survived some second-half scares to down the Rebels — who outscored them three tries to two — and finish with 66 points from 14 victories and two losses.
That was two points more than the Chiefs, who led the standings for much of the season, and the Cape Town side became the first team to reach the knock-out Super Rugby stages without collecting a four-try bonus point in any match.
The Hurricanes ruined their fellow New Zealanders’ hopes of top spot with a dramatic late try four minutes after the full-time siren by hooker Dane Coles, but it was not enough to force their way into the playoffs.
The Queensland Reds were too committed for the Waratahs in Brisbane, scoring five tries to two to just squeeze out the Brumbies for the Australia conference title — both sides on 58 points, but the Reds having one more win, 11 to 10.
There was despair for the Brumbies, who failed to get the one point they needed in a 30-16 loss against the Auckland Blues.
However, Queensland may be without their star Wallaby playmaker Quade Cooper for next weekend’s playoff after he was cited for a high tackle that forced dazed rival flyhalf Berrick Barnes from the field.
Cooper, who had an influential match, was yellow-carded by referee Steve Walsh for the incident.
Seven-time championship winners the Canterbury Crusaders sealed fourth place and a home playoff berth when they took maximum points from a 38-24 victory over Australia’s hapless Western Force in Christchurch.
The Crusaders set up their 11th win of the season in the first 40 minutes as they attacked with precision to run up a 32-3 lead and secure their four-try bonus point.
They are scheduled to face the triple champion Bulls, who make the long journey to New Zealand after dominating the second half to defeat fellow South Africans the Golden Lions 37-20 at Loftus Versfeld.
The Johannesburg-based Lions finished last in the table — for the third time in five years — with 25 points from just three wins.
In Durban, the Sharks recovered from a woeful first half to claim sixth spot with a 34-15 win over the Central Cheetahs and now will have to trek to Brisbane to try to stay in the tournament.