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Eight teams still in the hunt for Super 14 play offs

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Five of seven matches in the 12th round the Super 14 will bear directly on the eight-team race for the semifinals, now only three weeks away.


Paramount among those matches is the anticipated clash between the Crusaders and Sharks who set the pace in the competition by maintaining unbeaten records through nine rounds, separated only by the Crusaders talent for acquiring four-try bonus points.


The match at Christchurch is less the showpiece it might have been because the Sharks have dropped matches in the past two weeks to the Brumbies and the Waratahs to slip to third place on the championship table, yielding the Crusaders a seven point break at the top.


A win for the Crusaders would likely seal a home semifinal, with matches remaining against the Reds and Highlanders who are no longer playoff contenders.


The Sharks desperately need the win to reanimate their season, before they face a tougher finish against the Cheetahs and Chiefs.


The Durban, South Africa-based team risks dropping out of the top four if it loses again on Friday, amid an intensifying clamor for playoffs places.


The second-placed Waratahs face the Bulls in Pretoria and the fourth-placed Chiefs meet the Western Force on Saturday in matches which might strengthen their hold on top-four spots.


Behind the current top four, the fifth-placed Hurricanes who host the last-placed Lions, the sixth-placed Stormers who meet the seventh-placed Brumbies and the eighth-placed Blues who play the Reds are all desperate to keep their playoffs hopes alive.


Crusaders coach Robbie Deans is aware ahead of his team’s match against the Sharks of the danger of a team fueled by desperation.


“They (the Sharks) won’t be excited about their recent outcomes, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re a very good side,” he said.


“Look at the circumstances. It’s the last game before they head home. They won’t want to cross the ocean again, so it’s very important to them. We’re expecting the best from them.”


Deans said the Waratahs had been able to dominate the low-scoring Sharks at the breakdowns – a Crusaders forte – but he expected the South Africans to be more competitive in that area this week.


“The Sharks are unlikely to be suppressed as easily again, I suggest,” he said.


The Waratahs face one of the toughest run-ins to the playoffs with matches in South Africa against the defending champion Bulls and the competitive Stormers before their traditionally fierce derby clash with the Reds.


Saturday’s match offers the Waratahs the chance to maintain a winning streak stretching back to their sixth-round loss to the Crusaders but they face a difficult assignment against the big and physical Bulls.


“The Bulls are a really tough opponent, and we’ve been doing a fair bit of work looking at their scrum,” Wallabies prop Al Baxter said.


“There are a lot of Springboks in their pack, and they have taken a few sides apart. They have a lot of size, and good technique. It is something they really pride themselves on.


It is something we think they will focus on. So it is something we have to focus on.”


The Chiefs will also attempt to extend a lengthy winning streak, stretching back to round five, when they play the Force in Perth.


The match is the first of three the Chiefs will play on the road in the last rounds of the tournament, making their regular-season finish particularly troublesome.


The Force are out of semifinals reckoning but in a strong position, with matches against the Chiefs, Hurricanes and Brumbies, to have a hand in deciding which teams reach the top four.


The Stormers have been the best-performed South African teams in recent weeks and have a chance to move into stronger semifinals contention when they meet the Brumbies in Cape Town.


“This is a crunch game, but I don’t think there’s any pressure on us to get the bonus point,” Stormers captain Jean de Villiers said.


“We got the win last weekend and we’re happy with that. We’ll be happy if we get the win this Saturday. The bonus point is exactly that – a bonus. We just need to stick to our structures and not try too hard. That’s when you make mistakes.”


Sapa-AP – Super14.com

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