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Fiji Time: 1:44 AM on Tuesday 2 September

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Super Rugby race still wide open

AAP
Thursday, July 10, 2014

Update: 5:16PM THEY are the bookmakers' favourites, riding a record winning streak and unbeaten at home in 2014, yet the NSW Waratahs still face a treacherous run to their maiden Super Rugby title.

Undoubtedly in the box seat, the Waratahs nevertheless enter this weekend's last round of the regular season likely needing to conquer the two most prolific Super Rugby grand finalists in history back-to-back to break their 18-year duck.

If results go according to the form guide and teams' respective standings on the competition table, the Waratahs will be thrust into a cut-throat semi-final on Saturday, July 26 with Australian conference rivals the Brumbies.

The Brumbies are five-times Super Rugby grand finalists, winning titles in 2001 and 2004, and spanked the Waratahs 51-10 in their only previous playoff encounter, in 2002 at Allianz Stadium - the venue for this year's semi.

If NSW indeed play - and beat - the Brumbies, seven-times Super Rugby champions and 10-times grand finalists the Crusaders are likely to be standing in their way in the title match on August 2 at ANZ Stadium.

The Waratahs haven't beaten the Crusaders in a decade, losing their past 11 encounters - including the 2005 and 2008 grand finals in Christchurch.

If not the Brumbies, the Waratahs' second-most likely semi-final opponents are the two-time defending champion Chiefs.

The Chiefs are positioned to meet the Brumbies in the first week of the playoffs next week in what would be a sequel to the 2013 grand final - but contested in Canberra instead of Hamilton this time around.

The big advantage the Tahs have over their rivals in 2014 is their unbeaten record in Sydney.

Allianz Stadium has become the Waratahs' fortress, with six wins from six this campaign, while the minor premiers have also won both games at ANZ Stadium this season.

The Waratahs, Crusaders and third-placed Sharks are the only teams assured of finals action, with six other teams jostling for the remaining three playoff spots in the last round.

The Highlanders, on 42 points, are clinging to fourth place ahead of the Hurricanes (41), the Brumbies (40), Force (40) and Chiefs (40).

The Blues (36) remain a mathematical hope but will only sneak into the playoffs if they smash the Chiefs by 39 points or more at Eden Park on Friday night.

HOW FINALS CONTENDERS FARE HEADING INTO FINAL POOL ROUND

1.Waratahs (53 points) - v Reds (away)

2.Crusaders (46) - Highlanders (home)

3.Sharks (46) - Stormers (away)

4.Highlanders (42) - Crusaders (away)

5.Hurricanes (41) - bye

6.Brumbies (40) - Western Force (home)

7.Western Force (40) - Brumbies (away)

8.Chiefs (40) - Blues (away)

9.Blues (36) - Chiefs (home)

SCENARIOS

Waratahs: Have already locked up the minor premiership and booked a home semi-final at Allianz Stadium on July 26.

Crusaders: A victory over the Highlanders, or even a bonus-point defeat and a Sharks loss will clinch them second spot and a home semi-final in Christchurch.

Sharks: Assured of a playoff spot but can secure a weekend off and home semi-final in Durban if they pick up more competition points this weekend than the Crusaders.

Highlanders: Only a succession of unlikely results can deny them a playoff spot, but they need to score a bonus-point win over the Crusaders to have any hope of stealing second spot and a home semi-final.

Hurricanes: Sweating on the Blues to beat the Chiefs and the loser of the Brumbies-Force game not collecting a bonus point.

Brumbies: Will qualify for the finals with victory over the Force, or if they pick up a bonus point and the Blues beat the Chiefs, or if they collect two bonus points.

Force: Same scenario as the Brumbies.

Chiefs: Must beat the Blues to be assured of making the playoffs, but can also qualify if they lose, pick up two bonus points and Brumbies or Force win without conceding two bonus points.

Blues: Only have a slim mathematical hope but can sneak in if they smash the Chiefs by 39 points or more and other results go their way.


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