The duel between the NSW Waratahs and Brumbies for Super Rugby’s crucial Australian conference honours is set to go to the wire after a dramatic weekend featuring contrasting fortunes for Wallabies Quade Cooper and Sam Carter.
Leading the Brumbies by three points going into the round, the Waratahs lost 27-22 to the Lions in Johannesburg, with more discipline problems emerging as winger Rob Horne and forward Jacques Potgieter were sin-binned.
Horne subsequently became the third Waratahs player in the space of eight days to be cited for foul play in the form of a tip tackle, and he could join Tolu Latu and will Skelton in being suspended when he faces a judiciary hearing.
A bonus point tied NSW on 42 points with the Brumbies, who had leapfrogged them with their 22-16 win over the Bulls in Canberra.
The Waratahs lead the conference by virtue of having notched one more win and are third overall, behind New Zealand’s Hurricanes (57) and South Africa’s Stormers (43), while the Brumbies are sixth behind Kiwi outfits the Highlanders (48) and Chiefs (44).
Winger Henry Speight scored two tries for the Brumbies, who must play out their season without Wallaby lock Carter.
His World Cup hopes are under a cloud as he’s been sidelined for up to 12 weeks with a torn knee ligament.
There was brighter news for five-eighth Cooper, who almost single-handedly carried the Reds to a 32-10 away win over the Western Force in his first game since suffering his second shoulder fracture of the year two months ago.
Cooper showed his class as he scored 22 points, crossing for two tries and and setting up one of two Lachie Turner five-pointers with a flick pass, to ensure the Force became favourites for the wooden spoon.
Each of those Australian conference stragglers could provide a potential banana skin for their finals-chasing compatriots over the last two rounds.
NSW host the Reds in the final round after playing the out-of-form Cheetahs in Bloemfontein next weekend.
The Brumbies face the Force in Perth, before finishing off at home to the Crusaders, who kept alive their chances of a 14th straight finals appearance with a 35-18 win over the Hurricanes in Nelson.
Nine teams still have a shot at making the finals, though the seventh-placed Lions (40) have only one match to play due to a final-round bye, while the Crusaders and Bulls (both 36) each have two.
Melbourne Rebels and Wallabies prop Laurie Weeks was sent off for throwing punches at opposing front rower Jannie du Plessis in Melbourne’s 25-21 loss to the Sharks in Durban.
Two tries to captain Scott Higginbotham couldn’t secure a first win in South Africa for the Rebels and Weeks was later cited by SANZAR for alleged foul play.
The Highlanders stole a march on the Chiefs with a four tries to nil 36-9 bonus-point win in Invercargill.
The Stormers stretched their lead atop the South African conference with a 42-12 bonus-point home victory over the Cheetahs.