WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Blues, safe in first place, can look down with calm detachment on any turmoil that occurs during the last regular season round in Super Rugby Pacific.
Below the Auckland-based Blues, the seven other teams currently holding playoffs places might approach this weekend with various degrees of comfort or anxiety.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs in fourth place are holding on by three points to the promise of a home quarterfinal, and the Dunedin-based Highlanders in eighth place are three point clear of the Western Force in the contest for the last playoffs position.
The match between the Western Force and Wellington-based Hurricanes at Perth on Saturday has significance in both of those contests. If the Hurricanes win and the Chiefs lose to the Fijian Drua in Suva, the Hurricanes will displace the Chiefs in fourth place. If the Force win and the Highlanders lose to the Melbourne Rebels, the Force will take the Highlanders place in the quarterfinals.
The other teams inside the top eight might face some reshuffling of positions depending on the outcome of matches in the last round but the Chiefs and Highlanders are the teams under most pressure.
The Highlanders appeared more comfortable in eighth place before last weekend’s damaging 32-20 loss to the New South Wales Waratahs. The loss not only allowed the Force to close the gap from six to three points with a midweek win over Moana Pasifika, but the Highlanders lost flyhalf Sam Gilbert to a season-ending suspension.
Gilbert has been banned for five weeks for a lifting tackle on Waratahs captain Michael Hooper and his loss comes at a time the Highlanders already are without regular starting flyhalf Mitch Hunt, who has concussion. The 32-year-old veteran Marty Banks is likely to start at No. 10 against the Rebels on Sunday.
Head coach Tony Brown was disappointed with the Highlanders’ discipline against the Waratahs and says individual preparation will be the key to a better performance against the Rebels.
“Being prepared to sacrifice a few things around your personal life or whatever it may be and really committing to the team, committing to the cause and just trying to be ... better than you were last week,” Brown said.
The Rebels and Force were bitter rivals when Rugby Australia had to pare down the number of Australian Super Rugby franchises under the previous tournament structure. Now their relationship is symbiotic: the Force need the Rebels to beat the Highlanders to advance to the playoffs.
“We definitely want to finish on a high at home as it’s something we can take forward into next season,” Rebels flanker Brad Wilkin said. “And if we can also help the Western Force get through to the finals it’s only good for Australian rugby so we will be doing our best to get the win.”
The Chiefs have a tough task against the Fijian Drua, who will play the last match of their inaugural season in front of a packed National Stadium in Suva.
“It will be pretty foreign conditions to us with the heat, humidity and potentially some tropical downpours as well as the state of the ground,” Chiefs head coach Clayton McMillan said. “We know it’s going to be a bit of a festival atmosphere but also a fairly hostile one.”
If current standings are preserved the Blues will play the Highlanders in the quarterfinals, the Christchurch-based Crusaders, who play Queensland on Friday, will play the Reds again, the Brumbies will play the Waratahs; and the Chiefs will play the Hurricanes.
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