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Waratahs go top in Super Rugby as playoffs race stays close

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand - The New South Wales Waratahs took advantage of the Sharks' absence to vault into first place on the Super Rugby ladder during a 17th round which provided thrills without definitively removing anyone from the playoffs race.

As the results fell across a round in which only Australian and New Zealand teams were involved — South African sides were inactive due to Saturday's Springboks test — places changed, but the 10 teams that started in playoffs contention held their ground.

The Waratahs, Highlanders and Hurricanes all won to firm their places in the top six, while the Crusaders and ACT Brumbies held their placings despite defeats.

The Auckland-based Blues, who started the round in 10th place and as the least likely qualifier, made their challenge more credible with a 40-14 win over the Western Force.

Two rounds now remain in the regular season and the Pretoria-based Bulls, shuffled back to 10th place, are now the back-markers in the playoffs race with 33 points. They and the seventh-placed Western Force, the eighth-placed Blues and the ninth-placed Chiefs — all on 36 points — can still reach the top six, although they may have to rely on other results going their way.

The Chiefs two-year reign as Super Rugby champions is under severe threat after their 29-25 loss on Friday to the Highlanders. They have matches remaining against the Hurricanes and Blues and coach Dave Rennie has conceded they have to win both, possibly with bonus points, to have a chance of prolonging their reign as champions.

"We'll have to be much better against the Hurricanes but we're back in Hamilton," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. "If you get that right then you've got a chance.

"It's been that sort of competition. We need four or five points next week and then we can reassess. If we win both we've got a chance."

The Brumbies clung to sixth place but their playoffs hopes suffered a severe setback with Saturday's 39-8 loss to the Waratahs. They, along with Hurricanes, have only one match remaining in the regular season as the Brumbies have a bye next weekend and the Hurricanes in the last round.

That made the Hurricanes' 16-9 win over the Crusaders on Saturday critical to their playoffs hopes and if they can beat the Chiefs next round they can watch the final round from the sidelines with some hope of qualifying.

The Crusaders still managed to finish the round atop the New Zealand conference, and in third place overall, despite their loss to the Hurricanes. They had conceded first place to the Highlanders at the start of the round but moved back into the conference lead with a bonus point in defeat.

Lock Blade Thomson scored a try in each half for the Hurricanes who unsettled the Crusaders with an effective kick-chase game.

"Our physicality wasn't quite there and our urgency as well," Crusaders captain Ryan Crotty said. "They were beating us to the ball, their breakdown was better us and it really took a kick up the butt at halftime to throw the boys together and to get into gear.

"It's frustrating and means we're desperate the last two weeks."

The Waratahs clinched first place in the Australian conference and boosted their chances of a top-two finish overall — with it, a home semifinal — with a five try win over the Brumbies. Winger Alofa Alofa scored two tries as the Brumbies once again showed the strength of their attacking game.

Their win came at heavy cost with a knee injury likely sidelining captain Dave Dennis for the rest of the season — starting with matches over the next two weeks against the Highlanders and Queensland Reds.

The Sharks return to action next weekend and, with matches remaining against the Cheetahs and Stormers, are still strongly placed to clinch a home semifinal.

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