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Super Rugby title race closes up as leading Sharks lose at home to Highlanders

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - The Sharks' billing as Super Rugby champions-in-waiting was substantially undermined when they were dumped 34-18 on their home ground by the eighth-place Highlanders during the weekend's 11th round.

While they stayed atop a rapidly changing ladder, the Durban-based Sharks saw their six-point lead trimmed to one point by the ACT Brumbies, who took maximum points from a 43-21 win over defending champions the Chiefs.

The Sharks' lengthy reign in first place now looks shaky as they embark on a testing four-match trip to New Zealand and Australia, where they will play the Rebels, Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues.

The Highlanders delivered the Sharks' first home loss of the season, ending their run of five wins at Kings Park and making more significant their apparent vulnerability in away games.

Three-time champions the Bulls may provide an object lesson to the Sharks in their recent tour to Australia and New Zealand. The Pretoria-based Bulls' 15-9 loss to the Western Force in Perth on Saturday was their fourth on tour: They had previously been beaten by the Waratahs, Highlanders and Hurricanes.

Two of those losses were by seven points, one by six points and one by five points but they were enough to plunge the Bulls to 10th place on the table, though they remain second in South Africa, 11 points behind the Sharks.

Nor will life be easy for the second-place Brumbies in coming weeks: They face the Crusaders away and the Sharks at home in the next two rounds, travel to South Africa for matches against the Cheetahs and Stormers, then face the Rebels before the tournament breaks for June test rugby.

But they at least have the cushion of a six-point lead in the Australian conference after their four-try win over the Chiefs and after the previously fourth-place Waratahs crashed 21-13 to the 11th-place Blues in Auckland on Friday.

Standings in the New Zealand conference were substantially reworked by the outcomes of weekend matches. The Hurricanes beat the Queensland Reds 35-21 for their fourth straight win, surging from the bottom to the top of the conference on the back of that streak.

The Wellington-based Hurricanes have beaten the seven-time champion Crusaders, three-time champion Bulls, three-time champion Blues and 2011 champions the Reds on a winning run that has carried them past the Chiefs into first place in New Zealand and third place overall.

Wins by the Highlanders, Hurricanes and Blues, a loss by the Chiefs and a bye for the Crusaders significantly compacted the New Zealand conference. The Hurricanes, in third place overall, lead by one point from the Chiefs who are fifth, a point ahead of the Highlanders who are seventh, and two points clear of the Crusaders in eighth. The Blues hold ninth place, a further two points back but only four points outside the top six.

The relative strengths of the regional conferences may be advisedly read by current standings. Australian teams are second (Brumbies), fourth (Force), sixth (Waratahs), 12th (Rebels) and 13th (Reds).

The Force regained winning form on Saturday with their win over the Bulls in a rain-drenched match in which all points came from penalties, while the Brumbies won and the Reds and Waratahs lost to New Zealand opponents. The Rebels had a bye.

New Zealand teams are third (Hurricanes), fifth (Chiefs), seventh (Highlanders), eighth (Crusaders) and ninth (Blues), separated by only six championships points in an alignment which hints at the consistent strength of the conference. Of the New Zealand teams, only the Blues — 4-5 after nine games — have fewer wins than losses.

The Highlanders and Hurricanes have rushed into playoffs contention with recent wins, though the Chiefs — hard-hit by injuries — have struggled with three losses, two draws and a solitary win in their last six games.

Dave Rennie, who coached the Chiefs to the title in the last two years, said the Hamilton-based side had to make changes or risk fading from contention.

In the South African conference, the Sharks are still in first place but there is an 11-point gap back to the Bulls in 10th, the Lions are 11th and the Cheetahs and Stormers occupy the last two places overall.

The Cheetahs' 35-22 win over the Stormers on Saturday was their first since February, and lifted them off the bottom and above the Stormers, semifinalists two seasons ago.

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