New Zealand teams are poised to have a massive say in the outcome of the thrilling battle between the Brumbies and the Waratahs for the coveted top spot in Super Rugby’s Australian conference.
The Brumbies retained a wafer-thin advantage over the Waratahs with two rounds remaining, after each recorded a bonus-point win when the competition resumed following a break for the June Tests.
The Canberra-based franchise scored six tries, two of them to captain and hooker Stephen Moore, in a 43-24 home win over Queensland on Friday in chilly Canberra.
Less than 24 hours later, the Waratahs crossed for nine five-pointers, with winger Reece Robinson and halfback Matt Lucas bagging two apiece, in their 57-12 thrashing of the Sunwolves in a hot Tokyo.
The two Australian sides are locked together on 39 points, with the Brumbies top by virtue of having recorded nine wins to the Waratahs eight.
Both sides face New Zealand opposition in the penultimate round.
The Brumbies travel to Auckland to play the Blues on Friday while the Waratahs host the Hurricanes the following night in Sydney.
The Brumbies back-row depth will be tested, after No.8 and debutant Ben Hyne rolled his ankle and joined David Pocock (eye socket) and Jordan Smiler (knee) in the casualty ward.
In the final round the following week, it’s the Tahs turn to face the Blues at Eden Park on the Friday, with the Brumbies at home to the Force the next night.
Despite their huge win the Waratahs are still four points behind the Highlanders, who occupy the third and last wildcard spot in the Australasian group.
The Highlanders beat the Kings 48-18 in Port Elizabeth, with fullback Matt Faddes bagging three of their seven tries.
The Hurricanes are five points ahead of NSW and retained a wildcard position with a 37-27 win over the Blues in Wellington.
Melbourne’s mathematical hopes of making the finals were extinguished by a 57-31 home defeat at the hands of the Stormers.
Melbourne’s already extensive injury list was expanded after locks Luke Jones and Lopeti Timani were both concussed during the first half.
Western Force showed plenty of spirit in their first match since sacking coach Michael Foley.
They came from 27-10 down at halftime against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein to lead 29-27, only to lose 30-29.
New Wallabies back Dane Haylett-Petty scored two tries, while kicker Peter Grant missed with a late long distance attempt.
Only three points separate the top four teams in the NZ conference after the Chiefs moved above the Crusaders into first with a 23-13 over that side in the first Super Rugby match played in Fiji.
While the Australian and NZ conferences look certain to go down to the wire, things are far more clear cut in the two South African conferences.
The Lions are assured of topping one conference after pulling 12 points clear of their closest challengers, the Sharks, who they beat 37-10 in Johannesburg.
In the other SA conference, the Stormers are nine points ahead of their nearest rival the Bulls, who crashed to a 29-21 loss to the Jaguares in Buenos Aires.