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Super Rugby teams seek to strengthen their positions in unpredictable playoff race

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - Teams still in the race for the playoffs in Super Rugby will try to strengthen their positions in this weekend's 16th round before the tournament breaks for a month for June test matches.

Nine teams are still in contention for six playoff spots with four rounds remaining in the regular season. In one of the tightest playoff races in recent years, the result of a single match can cause a precipitous rise or drop in the standings.

The Crusaders, for example, improved to third place overall and to first in the New Zealand conference on the back of last weekend's 32-30 win over the Highlanders, which was sealed when a potentially match-winning Highlanders' try was disallowed in the final minute.

Had that try been awarded, the Crusaders would have dropped back to ninth place overall and their playoff chances would be dangling by a thread.

The ACT Brumbies and defending champion Chiefs have led the Australian and New Zealand conferences for much of the season, but defeats last weekend dropped them back to seventh and eighth, respectively, on the cramped championships ladder. The Brumbies fell back to third place in Australia, behind the New South Wales Waratahs and Western Force, while the Chiefs plummeted to fourth in New Zealand behind the Crusaders, Hurricanes and Highlanders.

The Durban-based Sharks remain atop the championships table, as they have been for most of the season, leading the second-placed Waratahs by five points. They also have an 11-point cushion in the South African conference over the Bulls.

The Sharks' chances of finishing the season in first place and securing a home semifinal improved considerably when they won three of four matches on their just-ended tour of New Zealand and Australia, beating the Crusaders in Christchurch for the first time and finishing off with a hard-fought win over the Blues.

The Sharks now look to have a comparatively comfortable run toward the playoffs, beginning with Saturday's match at home against the 11th-placed Stormers, whom they also play in the last regular season round. They also have a match remaining against the 13th-placed Cheetahs.

Centre Paul Jordaan said the Sharks' confidence had risen appreciably after its successes in New Zealand.

"It's not easy to beat sides in New Zealand and we're definitely on a high and will look to improve on it this weekend," he said. "The Crusaders win helped us grow a lot as a team and we definitely need to build on that but the match against the Stormers will be a tough game.

"I guess a happy team is a winning team so we had a good time and were fortunate to come away with three out of four wins from the tour."

The Waratahs face a harder finish to the season as they attempt to secure a home semifinal, beginning with Saturday's clash in Hamilton against the Chiefs, who will be in desperate need of a victory to secure a playoff spot.

The Waratahs haven't won in New Zealand in four years, losing eight-straight matches, but they come into Saturday's match on the back of three bonus-point wins.

"Obviously we are carrying some baggage of previous Waratahs teams that have crossed the Tasman," assistant coach Daryl Gibson said. "For us, as part of our transformation process, becoming the team that we want to become, winning in New Zealand is part of that.

"We see that as our greatest challenge of the season and one that we are eager to take up."

All Blacks backrower Keiran Read will return to lead the Crusaders against the fourth-place Force after being sidelined for five weeks with concussion. Read suffered his second concussion of the season on April 19 when he was hit in a match against the Chiefs.

The Hurricanes revived their playoff chances with last weekend's 45-8 demolition of the Chiefs, and the Highlanders also remain in the hunt after taking two bonus points from their loss to the Crusaders. South Africa's Bulls, in ninth place, still have an outside chance of making the post-season, as well. They face the Lions on Saturday.

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