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Pressure increases on Super 14 play off hopefuls

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The Waratahs face the toughest task of the nine teams remaining in semifinal contention when the penultimate round of rugby’s Super 14 begins Friday.


The second-placed Waratahs face the fourth-placed Stormers in Cape Town in a match which bears heavily not only on their own semifinal chances but on those of teams in the chasing pack, just outside the top four.


The race for the playoffs has become so tight that all seven matches on the weekend will have some bearing on the battle for the semifinals.


The Crusaders, 10 points clear at the top of the table, are the only team guaranteed a playoff place – they have a home semifinal -but most teams now depend not only on their own form but on the outcome of other matches to lift them into the top four.


With 47 points, the Crusaders can look on with a casual interest on the events of the last two rounds, which will leave four survivors among the nine current playoffs hopefuls.


All Blacks flyhalf Dan Carter returns to the bench Saturday for the Crusaders match against the Reds in Brisbane, ending a lengthy injury layoff and restoring his team to full strength as the playoffs approach.


The Waratahs, in second place behind the Crusaders with 37 points, can make a semifinal place safe with a win on Saturday, as could the Stormers who come into the match on a five-game winning streak.


The Stormers have won six of their last 10 matches against the Waratahs, including three of their last five at home, although the Waratahs won on their last visit to Newlands in 2006.


“It’s like semifinal week in Cape Town,” Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie said.

 

“We need to focus on our job better than last week because the Stormers will be desperate to win in front of their home crowd.”

The Stormers have named an unchanged side for the match, following coach Rassie Erasmus’ claim that his team is now “the finished article” and that it is too late in the season for rotation or experimentation.


The third-place Hurricanes begin the 13th round Friday against the Western Force who, in ninth place with 28 points, mark the borderline of the playoffs.


The Hurricanes face a tough finish with matches against the Force and Blues – both playoff contenders – but have made a steady form improvement in their last two games.

 

The introduction of youngster Willie Ripia at flyhalf has helped spark the Hurricanes backline and he retains that position Friday, in a head-to-head clash with Wallabies pivot Matt Giteau.

“He’s grabbed his opportunity and keeps forcing us to pick him,” Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper said of Ripia.


“He’s certainly showed he has the ball skills and that he can see space.”


Behind the top four, the Chiefs with 33 points after last week’s loss to the Force are only two points out of fourth place and four points out of second. They face the last-placed Lions in Johannesburg on Saturday before a final-round clash with the Sharks.


The Sharks have dropped from second to sixth place with three straight losses, to the Brumbies, Waratahs and Crusaders, but could revive their playoff chances Saturday when they host the struggling Cheetahs.


The low-scoring Sharks not only need a win to boost their playoffs claims but a substantial win to improve their poor points differential.


“We realize we have to score tries,” assistant coach Grant Bashford said.


“We have to collect five points in each of our remaining two matches to remain in contention for the semifinals.”


The Brumbies, who play the Bulls on Saturday, and the Blues, who take on the Highlanders, retain mathematical chances of reaching the playoffs. But they rely heavily on the outcome of other games.


Sapa-AP – Super14.com

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