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Chiefs to face Brumbies, Sharks to face Highlanders in Super Rugby 1st round playoffs

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Defending champions the Chiefs will play the ACT Brumbies and the Durban-based Sharks will host the Highlanders in next weekend's first-round finals in Super Rugby after the last regular-season round shuffled standings and dumped three teams from the playoffs race.

Seven-time champions the Crusaders took a four-try bonus point from a 34-8 win over the Dunedin-based Highlanders to clinch second place and to follow the New South Wales Waratahs on the direct path to the semfinals. The Waratahs, who had already sealed first place, beat the Queensland Reds 34-3 to end the regular season with 12 wins from 16 matches.

The Chiefs beat the Blues 11-8 in a rain-drenched match to eliminate the Auckland-based Blues, and the Brumbies beat the Western Force 47-25, ejecting both the Force and the Hurricanes from the post-season.

The Sharks beat the Stormers 34-10 in the last match of the regular season to claim third place after losses to the Stormers and Cheetahs ruined their chance of a home semifinal.

The Waratahs and Crusaders now have a week off to prepare for its semifinals while matches at Canberra and Durban on Saturday will determine who joins them in the second stage of the playoffs.

The recent form of the Waratahs who posted a club-record seventh straight win on Saturday, including heavy defeats of championship contenders the Highlanders and the Brumbies, makes them favourites to claim their first Super Rugby title.

The Crusaders reached the semifinals for the 13th straight year, continuing its bid for an eighth title and first since 2008. It will host the highest-ranked survivor of the quarterfinals while the Waratahs will host the lowest-ranked team to come through next weekend's games.

The Waratahs' backline was in formidable form on Saturday, even in the absence of Wallabies fullback Israel Folau who has scored 12 tries this season. Inside centre Kurtley Beale scored two of their four tries and created another in an outstanding performance which showed the depth and range of the Waratahs' attack.

The main concern for coach Michael Cheika was its weakness at its set piece, particularly the lineout where the Waratahs lost five lineout throws.

"It was pretty terrible but we haven't had a day like that for a while and it was a good reminder," he said. "What we have to improve on is everything, even things that we're going well at because everyone's coming now.

"It's sudden death from now on, so everyone's sharpening their pencils and getting their A-game ready."

The Crusaders showed something of their A-game in their emphatic defeat of the Highlanders.

"I think we're in a good place," captain Ryan Crotty said. "When I think back to last year we had a couple of unlucky byes and that took its toll a wee bit.

"But the boys are fresh, there's good energy all week at training and the boys are just happy being around each other so it's a good place to be."

The Sharks saw its hopes of a home semifinal fade when the Crusaders emphatically beat the Highlanders but still lifted themselves out of a recent form slump to claim third place and the best of the quarterfinal draws.

Paul Jordaan, Sibusiso Sithole and Stefan Ungerer scored tries for the Sharks while Frans Steyn kicked 19 points in a strong lead-in to the playoffs.

The Brumbies also signalled its strong form ahead of the playoffs scoring seven tries to extinguish the Force's hopes of reaching the post-season for the first time in their nine-year history.

Flyhalf Matt Toomua returned from injury to spark the Brumbies' backline, scoring three tries and taking a hand in two others. They now face a rematch of last season's final against the Chiefs, though with the bonus of home advantage.

"We've learned that we're good enough," coaching director Laurie Fisher said. "If we play our best football, we play our game to our standard, then we're good enough to progress further in the competition."

The Chiefs seemed to have fallen from the championships pace until they revived their bid for a third-straight title with wins over the Hurricanes and Blues. Both showed signs of the clinical, finals rugby the Chiefs have perfected over the last two seasons.

Coach Dave Rennie said the Chiefs are ready to face the Brumbies on their home ground.

"It's a challenge but we're just happy to be part of it," Rennie said. "We'll back ourselves to go anywhere and have a crack.

"There's a lot made of travel. Between Australia and New Zealand's it's not a big deal. There's a helluva lot of belief in this group and we've got a lot of guys who have been there before."

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