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1st-placed Waratahs sit above last round scramble for playoffs spots in Super Rugby

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - The New South Wales Waratahs will stand apart from the potential chaos of the last round of the Super Rugby regular season this weekend.

By beating the Highlanders 44-16 last Sunday, the Waratahs clinched first place on the overall table and afforded themselves the only sense of certainty belonging to any of the teams still involved in the playoffs race. They know that whatever happens this weekend, they will have a week's rest before hosting a home semifinal.

For every other team from the second-placed Crusaders to the ninth-placed Blues, who need events of almost miraculous proportions to reach the playoffs, almost nothing is assured.

The last and most intriguing episode of the regular season has still to play out.

For the Waratahs, with their fate already decided, Saturday's match against the 12th-placed Reds should be little more than an undemanding end to the regular season and a light prelude to their first semifinal in four years.

But matches between New South Wales and Queensland, beginning in 1882, are invested with such a potent interstate rivalry, even antipathy, that the Waratahs cannot expect an easy time. Queensland, champions in 2011, have little to salvage from a season in which their performance has fallen well short of expectations, but a win over New South Wales would at least be a small consolation.

Waratahs coach Michael Cheika has refused to name an under-strength lineup for the match to spare his frontline players for the semifinal.

"You could (injure a player) at any time, in training or regular games," Cheika said. "This is a contact sport, you don't go into it worrying about things like that."

In other matches in the final round, the Christchurch-based Crusaders will meet the Dunedin-based Highlanders in a contest for first place in the New Zealand conference. The Crusaders are currently in second place with 46 points and the Highlanders in fourth place with 42, needing a bonus point win to finish ahead of the Crusaders.

A single bonus point would be enough to ensure the Crusaders top the New Zealand conference but they need a win, ideally a good one, to hold out the challenge of South Africa's Sharks for second place and the other home semifinal.

The Sharks wrapped up the South African conference several weeks ago and are currently in third place overall, equal on points with the Crusaders, sharing the Crusaders' tally of 10 wins and only eight points behind on points differential.

The Durban-based Sharks face the Stormers in the final round — a team to which they lost only two weeks ago — and also need to win to enforce their challenge for second place. If both teams win and finish the regular season with 11 wins, points differential may decide which takes the preferred route through the playoffs.

The Highlanders need to recover quickly from last weekend's six-try mauling at the hands of the Waratahs to take their place in the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. That position isn't yet safe and they could be displaced, depending on the outcome of matches between the ACT Brumbies and the Western Force, the Blues and defending the champion Chiefs.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw has been ruled out of Saturday's match with a rib injury: a minor setback for the Crusaders who can finish no further back than fourth but who are determined to achieve a conference victory and second place.

The Chiefs must beat the Blues in Auckland to have any chance of extending their two-year reign as Super Rugby champions. They enter the final round in eighth place and must also depend on the outcome of other matches to gain a top-six finish.

The Blues must beat the Chiefs by a clear 38 points and with five tries to preserve their frail hope of a playoffs spot.

The Brumbies, in sixth place, and Force, in seventh — both with 40 points — also meet in a must-win clash between playoffs hopefuls. The winner of Friday's match at Canberra will advance to the playoffs while the loser's season is over.

The most anxious role in the final round belongs to the Hurricanes who are currently fifth with 41 points but who have the bye and must allow the outcome of other matches determine whether their season continues.

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