Chiefs' title reign in doubt
Wellington -The Chiefs' two-year reign as Super Rugby champions is under threat after their 45-8 loss to the Hurricanes during the 15th round in which tournament standings underwent seismic transformation.
South Africa's Sharks provided an element of stability by beating the Auckland-based Blues 29-23 to remain atop the championships ladder, five points clear of the New South Wales Waratahs.
The Chiefs and ACT Brumbies, who were beaten 44-23 by the Pretoria-based Bulls, not only gave up their places atop the New Zealand and Australian conferences but entirely dropped out of the top six.
It is a measure of the closeness of this season's playoffs race that a single round can so thoroughly change the leading standings and a single defeat can impinge so heavily on any team's title hopes.
The Chiefs plummeted to eighth place overall and to fourth place in the New Zealand conference, overtaken by the Crusaders who controversially beat the Highlanders 32-30, by the Hurricanes and by the Highlanders who took two bonus points from Saturday's narrow loss.
The Brumbies, who have now lost three of their last four games — a run broken only by a win over the Sharks — have fallen back to seventh place and been overtaken in Australia by the Waratahs, who beat the Melbourne Rebels 41-19 and the Western Force, who beat South Africa's Lions 29-19 in Perth.
The Sharks' win over the Blues completed a 3-1 record on their four-match tour to Australia and New Zealand and secured first place as they return to South Africa for the last four rounds of the regular season. They will now be extremely difficult to topple from the head of the ladder and are now strongly placed to claim a home semifinal as they seek their first Super Rugby title.
The Sharks' win over the Blues was their 10th in 13 matches and effectively eliminated the Blues from playoffs contention, leaving nine teams in the race for post-season places. But their remain many critics of the style of play the Sharks have adopted under coach Jake White, which is heavily defensive and based on slowing the pace of the game to a dull grind.
Two matches over the weekend — between the Crusaders and Highlanders, which featured eight tries, and between the Hurricances and Chiefs, which had seven — showed off Super Rugby at its best: fast-paced and intensely skilful. The Sharks' style is dour by comparison but they have refined their gameplan to a level which makes them hard to disrupt and defeat.
White said the Sharks had put a successful tour behind them and couldn't relax in the final weeks of the regular season.
"It's still the same - there's a lot of rugby still to be played," he said. "I mean, we're mindful of the fact there's a lot of good teams out there.
"We're under no illusions that it's difficult, but at the same time it's a massive boost to know that if you keep winning you can control your own destiny and I suppose that's what we're all aiming for."
The Crusaders' win over the Highlanders was one of the most thrilling of the season, hanging in the balance even in the final minute when the television match official disallowed what would have been the winning try to the Highlanders.
Winger Patrick Osborne, who had scored in the first half, dived over in the corner in the 80th minute and in the tackle of Crusaders' fullback Israel Dagg for what might have been the winning try. After studying several replays, TMO Vinny Munro decided Osborne had grounded the ball on the goalline and touchline simultaneously and ruled the try should be disallowed.
It seemed more likely that Osborne had forced the ball against the corner flag and that the try could have been allowed to stand: the incident highlighted the overwhelming influence TMO decisions have had on this season's tournament.
Highlanders coach Jamie Joseph said it's tough to lose in such circumstances.
"The wording I heard was that it hit the touchline and the goalline simultaneously," he said. "I didn't see it touch the line. I saw the goalline and I saw a flag."
The Hurricanes revived their foundering playoffs campaign with a six tries to one defeat of the Chiefs in Wellington. Flyhalf Beauden Barrett enhanced his claim to the All Blacks' starting role for next month's home test series against England with an immaculate performance: he played a creative role in several of the Hurricanes tries and maintained a perfect kicking record in a match played in a damaging gale.
Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said his team now has a tough job to retain their title.