New Zealand champions the Waikato Chiefs finished top of rugby’s Super 15 final season standings, after surprise defeats for title rivals the Northern Bulls and ACT Brumbies over the weekend.
The Chiefs improved their chances of hosting this season’s final next month with a 26-16 bonus-point win over a 14-man Auckland Blues at Eden Park on Saturday.
The Chiefs stayed top on 66 points after the Bulls crashed 30-13 to the Western Stormers in Cape Town to finish second, three points adrift. Both teams will have a bye when the first phase of the playoffs get underway next weekend.
The Brumbies botched their chance of finishing in the top two in a shock 21-15 loss to the lowly Western Force in Perth and they will host South Africa’s Central Cheetahs in Canberra in next Sunday’s qualifier.
Seven-time champion Canterbury Crusaders will have home advantage in the other playoff when they take on 2011 winners the Queensland Reds next Saturday.
The Crusaders ensured a home playoff with a nervy 25-17 victory over the Wellington Hurricanes in Christchurch on Friday.
The Reds clung on for a 14-12 win over the New South Wales Waratahs on Saturday to finish fifth ahead of the Cheetahs, who had a final-round bye.
The Bulls were fortunate that the Brumbies lost to the Force hours earlier after they went down to the Stormers.
The Pretoria-based Bulls had no answer to the brilliant attacking and defending of their long-time foes, and slipped to second in the final standings.
A bonus-point New Zealand derby victory for the Chiefs meant the Bulls needed to make it 10 wins in a row to remain on top, but they were always on the back foot from the kick-off.
The Western Force stunned the Brumbies, scoring the first three tries of the match to post one of the major upsets of the season, notching just their fourth win to finish a tough campaign on a high.
Fortunately for the Brumbies, they had already booked their berth in the playoffs so the result did not have any significant repercussions, aside from dented confidence heading into the business end of the season.
In this weekend’s other games with no playoff bearing, the Coastal Sharks scored 10 tries in a 58-13 romp over the Southern Kings in Durban, while the Melbourne Rebels stormed back from 24 points down at half-time to nudge out the Otago Highlanders 38-37 in an astonishing recovery in Melbourne on Friday.