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Sharks chase elusive 1st title in Super Rugby, join current and former champs in playoffs

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - The defending champions, two-time former champions and two teams aspiring to win their first titles will clash Saturday in the first round of playoffs in Super Rugby, all endeavouring to become the first wild card to win the southern hemisphere championships.

The two-time defending champion Hamilton-based Chiefs will face 2001 and 2004 winner the ACT Brumbies in Canberra before the Durban-based Sharks host the Dunedin-based Highlanders, both pursuing their first title.

The Brumbies and Chiefs meet in a repeat of last year's final, but on very different terms. Last year the Chiefs were top qualifiers and beat the third-placed Brumbies 27-22 in the final.

The Sharks were finalists a in 2012, beaten 37-6 by the Chiefs in Hamilton to remain, perhaps, the best team never to have won the championships.

In 2012 the Sharks crisscrossed the world during the playoffs, playing the last match of the regular season at home before flying to Australia for their quarterfinal, returning to South Africa for a semifinal then jetting to New Zealand for the final.

This year, losses to the Cheetahs and Stormers in two of their last three regular season matches — in part, caused by the disruption of the Springboks' June test matches — cost them the comfort of a home semifinal. But the Sharks have the consolation of home advantage in the first of the playoffs and, if they win, will travel to New Zealand for a semifinal against the Crusaders, beyond that the faint prospect of a home final.

Under World Cup-winning Springboks coach Jake White, who coached the Brumbies to last year's final, the Sharks led the tournament for most of the regular season and dispelled doubts about their ability to win the title when they won three of four matches in Australia and New Zealand, beating the Crusaders in Christchurch for the first time.

Having beaten the seven-time champion Crusaders once this season, the prospect of having to do so again in the semifinals will seem less daunting. The Sharks first have to overcome the Highlanders who have reached the playoffs for the first time in 12 years and who have already beaten the Sharks, 34-18, on their home ground this year.

That was possibly the Sharks' worst result in a regular season in which they won 11 and lost five games. But White is confident they are heading into the playoffs in good form after beating the Stormers last weekend to clinch a home quarterfinal.

"I was asked (after the Stormers match) what is going to be needed to win this comp and I said 'copy and paste'," White said. The manner of the win over the Stormers "equals everything we want in playoffs games.

"In the Stormers game we had to work hard, we defended well, we were down 7-3 but kept chipping away. We got the reward."

The Highlanders captured the last qualifying spot, finishing the regular season in sixth place, but stumbled toward the end of the season with heavy losses to the Waratahs (44-16) and the Crusaders (34-8). They are strengthened by the return from illness of co-captain and All Blacks fullback Ben Smith and take confidence from their win over the Sharks on April 25.

"I think they took us a bit lightly and paid the price. I don't think they will do that again," coach Jamie Joseph said.

"They looked almost unbeatable at the start of the season. They have had a couple of losses in recent times and, though they beat the Stormers well in Cape Town last week, every team in the competition is beatable if you can lift and play well on the day."

The Brumbies say they will not be motivated by any urge to avenge last year's finals loss to the Chiefs in Saturday's match at Canberra. But they believe they have developed since that match and are unafraid of playoffs football.

The Brumbies have lost two Wallabies captains to injury — hooker Stephen Moore and flanker David Pocock — but still feel they have the experience to match the two-time champion Chiefs.

"In terms of our game style we've developed, we run a bit more from our own half when we see opportunities," Moore said. "It doesn't mean you're flippant with the way you play, but we use our opportunities a bit more."

The Chiefs struggled into the plaoffs in a season in which they won only eight games, lost six and drew two. But they showed in their last two games against the Hurricanes and Blues, which both had the potential to knock them out of playoffs contention, that they are at their best in sudden death matches.

"When the pressure's gone on, this team has gone up a level so it's a matter of keeping that trend up," co-coach Wayne Smith said. "Canberra's tough and they're a tough team the Brumbies."

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