Super 14 Rugby

Play off race Tightens in Super 14 Round 11


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Nine teams remain in contention for semifinal places in rugby’s Super 14 with four rounds remaining.

A series of upset results in the 10th round, including the first losses of the season for the Sharks and Crusaders, compacted the top half of the table, leaving only three points between the fourth- and ninth-placed teams.

The Crusaders, with 38 points, are the only team assured of a semifinal spot, although they have a tough finish to the regular season with Friday’s match against the Blues and matches against the Sharks, Reds and Highlanders.

The Sharks, in second place on 32 points, haven’t yet secured a playoffs spot and face a similarly difficult finish with matches against the s Waratahs, Crusaders, Cheetahs and Chiefs.

Any combination of the next seven teams, from the third-placed Waratahs on 31 points to the ninth-placed Western Force on 24, could capture semifinal places over the next four weeks.

Only two of those teams, the Waratahs and the Sharks, are drawn against each other in round 11, though each of the ensuing three rounds contains critical matches between teams in playoff contention.

The Crusaders will endeavor to recover their winning form Friday in the feature match of the 11th round, against the seventh-placed Blues.

The Blues topped the championship table in its early rounds, has begun to slip from playoff contention in recent weeks with losses to the Waratahs and Brumbies.

Their run in to the playoffs, with matches against the Crusaders, Queensland, Highlanders and Hurricanes, is one of the most difficult of any of the semifinal contenders.

The task is made more difficult by the fact the Crusaders, who they meet in Christchurch on Friday, are determined to atone for last week’s 18-5 loss to the Chiefs.

Crusaders coach Robbie Deans had some stern words for his players after their lackluster performance in Hamilton and expects an immediate improvement.

“There’s been words unique to the circumstance, I guess,” Deans said. “We can’t change the outcome in Hamilton. All we can control is how we react to that experience and how we respond.”

The third-placed Waratahs host the second-placed Sharks in another of the 11th round’s critical matches, in which they will attempt to extend a winning streak stretching back to round six.

Sharks coach Dick Muir said his team must regroup after last week’s loss to the Brumbies to keep ahead in an intensifying playoffs race.

“We enjoy touring so we just have to bounce back,” Muir said. “We know how to play. If we do the way we can, we shouldn’t have any problems.”

The fourth-placed Stormers, elevated by recent wins over the Force and Hurricanes, host the Highlanders in round 11. They face the Waratahs and Brumbies in difficult matches over the next two weeks before finishing the regular season against the last-placed Lions.

The Stormers have named former All Blacks flyhalf Tony Brown to start on Saturday against his former team, the Highlanders, among five changes to the team that beat the Hurricanes last week.

“All of the players are proud of how we have improved, but you are only as good as your last game and we have achieved nothing and reached nothing yet (by) round 10,” coach Rassie Erasmus said.

“What will keep us motivated is that there are a lot of goals to aim for.”

The Chiefs face the Reds on Saturday in one of the tricky matches which litter the late rounds of the championship.

The Reds, Lions, Bulls, Cheetahs and Highlanders are no longer playoff contenders but have the chance in the last weeks of the season to damage other teams’ semifinal chances.

The Hurricanes take on the Cheetahs in a similar match, needing to win to keep their playoff chances alive.

The Cheetahs have replaced both their halfbacks for the match at Kimberley, South Africa.

Falie Oelschig is in for Tewis de Bruyn at scrumhalf, while Conrad Barnard takes over from Jacques-Louis Potgieter as flyhalf.

Sapa-AP –

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