The NSW Waratahs head to Perth this week chasing redemption and a rare sweep as they look to take a stranglehold on the Australian conference and shore up a Super Rugby finals berth.
The Waratahs’ torrid, hoodoo-busting 13-10 victory in Canberra and Melbourne’s shock 16-15 home win over the high-flying Chiefs has not only left the Brumbies walking the finals tightrope but also vaulted the Rebels back into playoff contention.
While the sixth-placed Waratahs finished an eventful round 12 one point behind the third-placed Brumbies in the overall standings, the defending champions have a game in hand as the ACT outfit prepares for a season-defining two-match tour of South Africa.
Certain to lose more ground on their finals rivals during their round-15 bye, the Brumbies must record back-to-back wins in the Republic for the first time in eight years to keep their title hopes alive.
“It comes down to us winning every game from here on in,” Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham conceded ahead of tough showdowns with the Stormers in Cape Town and Lions in Johannesburg.
But so impressed was he by the standard of Friday night’s intense derby in the national capital that Waratahs and Wallabies coach Michael Cheika was refusing to rule out the unlikely prospect of Australia’s top two sides playing off for the title.
“We’ve both got to go on good runs, but it would be nice if we both could,” Cheika said.
“But at the end of the day, I’ve rarely thought too much about that except for trying to get to the next (week).”
Cheika has good reason to be focusing solely on the Waratahs’ next challenge on Saturday night despite facing a bottom-placed Western Force outfit reeling from a franchise-record 10 straight defeats.
The Force, though, have conquered the Tahs in their last two meetings, including a round-one ambush of the champions in Sydney.
Having taken down the Brumbies, Rebels and Queensland Reds already this campaign, revenge for the Waratahs would complete a season sweep of their Australian conference rivals.
Skipper Dave Dennis dubbed the Waratahs’ gritty win over the Brumbies, their first in Canberra since 2011, as his side’s best performance in three years and challenged his troops to deliver again at nib Stadium.
“For us, we’re trying to get to that stage where that’s what we produce every week,” Dennis said.
Melbourne also have a game in hand on the Brumbies and despite sitting 10th can’t be dismissed as finals contenders after completing their own slice of history on Saturday night.
The Rebels now boast the scalp of every New Zealand opposition following their stirring victory over the fourth-placed Chiefs.
But coach Tony McGahan continues to play down his team’s playoff prospects.
“I haven’t thought about it. It’s a long way in front of us,” he said.
“I feel we’ve got a good enough side to play finals, absolutely.
“But whether that’s here or in the future, we’ve got too much in front of us to worry about that now.
“All we’ve got in front of us now is the Blues next week.”
The Hurricanes continue to top the ladder following a 29-23 victory over the Crusaders that leaves the seven-time champions with a mountain to climb to make the finals.
The Crusaders have fallen 12 points adrift of the second-placed Chiefs in the New Zealand conference.
The second-placed Bulls’ thrilling 35-33 win over the Lions in Pretoria and the Stormers’ surprise 25-17 loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein lifted the Pretorians back to top of the South African conference.
RUN HOME FOR SUPER RUGBY’S FINALS CONTENDERS:
1.HURRICANES (43 points, +107) – Sharks (home), Chiefs (h), Blues (away), Crusaders (a), Highlanders (h), Chiefs (a)
2.BULLS (34pts, +48) – bye, Blues (a), Chiefs (a), Brumbies (a), Rebels (a), Cheetahs (h)
3.BRUMBIES (32pts, +93) – Stormers (a), Lions (a), bye, Bulls (h), Western Force (a), Crusaders (h)
4.CHIEFS (38pts, +77) – bye, Hurricanes (a), Bulls (h), Highlanders (a), Queensland Reds (a), Hurricanes (h)
5.HIGHLANDERS (33pts, +53) – Lions (a), Cheetahs (a), Force (a), Chiefs (h), Hurricanes (a), Blues (a)
6.NSW WARATAHS (31pts, +32) – Force (a), Sharks (h), Crusaders (h), Lions (a), Cheetahs (a), Reds (h)
7.STORMERS (30pts, +25) – Brumbies (h), bye, Rebels (h), Stormers (h), Lions (h), Sharks (a)
8.LIONS (27pts, -45) – Highlanders (h), Brumbies (h), Cheetahs (a), Waratahs (h), Stormers (a), bye
9.CRUSADERS (26pts, +59) – Reds (h), bye, Waratahs (a), Hurricanes (h), Blues (a), Brumbies (a)
10.MELBOURNE REBELS (24pts, -17) – Blues (h), Reds (a), Stormers (a), Sharks (a), Bulls (h), Force (h)