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Sharks, Brumbies win close encounters to reach Super Rugby semifinals

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The ACT Brumbies earned a semifinal against the New South Wales Waratahs and South Africa's Sharks advanced to play New Zealand's Crusaders in Super Rugby after surviving similar and searching tests in first-round playoffs on Saturday.

Two-time champions the Brumbies gave up a 22-3 first-half lead, allowing the Chiefs to draw level at 25-25, before recovering to win 32-30 when their opponents failed to convert the last of the game's eight tries.

The match ended the Chief's two-year reign as Super Rugby champions, and ensures the title will pass into new hands this season: Either to the Brumbies or Crusaders, who share nine titles, or the Waratahs and Sharks, who are seeking their first.

The Sharks twice lost the lead but rallied to beat the Highlanders 31-27 in Durban.

The Waratahs will host the Brumbies in an all-Australian semifinal in Sydney next Saturday, while the Sharks will travel to Christchurch to face seven-time champions the Crusaders earlier the same day.

The Sharks will enter their third semifinal in seven years with some confidence, having beaten the Crusaders in Christchurch for the first time during the regular season. Their 30-25 win on May 17 allowed them to shed one of the greatest impediments to their bid for a first title: Their previous inability to win regularly outside South Africa.

The Sharks reached the final two years ago after an epic, globetrotting run through the playoffs in which they played a qualifying final in Australia, a semifinal in South Africa, and the final, against the Chiefs, in Hamilton. They travelled more than 27,000 kilometres (17,000 miles) over three weeks and succumbed to jetlag in the final, losing 37-6.

This time, the Sharks come into the playoffs in a better state. Though their form slipped a little late in the season when losses to the lowly Cheetahs and Stormers cost them a home semifinal, they managed still to achieve home advantage in the first stage of the playoffs.

They now face a more comfortable itinerary: A trip to New Zealand for the semis and, beyond that if they advance, a final in either Sydney or Canberra.

The Sharks were hard-pressed to beat the Dunedin-based Highlanders, who reached the playoffs for the first time in 12 years.

Despite holding forward dominance at Kings Park, the Sharks were trailing with seven minutes to go and needed two late penalties by flyhalf Frans Steyn to prevail.

The Sharks twice surrendered the lead and control to the Highlanders' lethal backline attacks, which produced three tries and nearly a repeat of the visitors' surprise win in Durban during the regular season.

Steyn kicked his game-deciding penalties in the 74th and 79th minutes after the Sharks' forward power finally paid off — but only just.

"I must say they ran us to pieces at some stages," Sharks captain Bismarck du Plessis said. "Their whole backline was absolutely amazing."

The Sharks face a much tougher encounter with the Crusaders, who have steadily stirred into life after a slow start to the season. The Crusaders, seeking their first title since 2008, have been severely disrupted by the absence of star flyhalf Dan Carter and prolonged injuries to All Blacks back-rowers Richie McCaw and Kieran Read.

But they are likely to be at full strength for the semi, and far more formidable than when they lost to the Sharks in round 13.

Two sin-binnings shaped the course of the Brumbies' clash with the Chiefs in Canberra. South African referee Craig Joubert sin-binned Chiefs centre Tim Nanai-Williams in the sixth minute and in his absence the Brumbies scored two tries to take a commanding 14-3 lead.

They built that to 22-3 after 28 minutes and were infected with confidence until the Chiefs began an inexorable comeback which drew the score level at 25-25 after 54 minutes. The Chiefs also scored two tries when the Brumbies were reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of winger Henry Speight.

Those tit-for-tat sin-binnings gave the match balance and it was a small irony that the try that tied the scores went to Nanai-Williams.

The Brumbies reclaimed the lead at 32-25 with a 60th-minute try to flanker Jarrad Butler. But the Chiefs replied again four minutes from fulltime through Gareth Anscombe, giving their captain Aaron Cruden a chance to tie the scores with a sideline conversion.

Cruden's hurried kick was wide, and a two-point rift remained which ended the Chiefs' reign as champions.

"To get that sort of win, against that quality of opposition with the ups and downs of the game — it was outstanding," Brumbies captain Ben Mowen said. "It was always going to be close and we knew it was going to have to be a full, 80-minute performance."

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