Stormers, Highlanders hit form as playoff race heats up
Both teams recorded thumping wins in round 16 to confirm their status as the form teams in Super Rugby.
SYDNEY - South Africa's Stormers and the Otago Highlanders recorded thumping wins in round 16 to confirm their status as the form teams in Super Rugby as the battle for playoff spots reaches its climax over the last two weeks of the regular season.
The Wellington Hurricanes lost to the Canterbury Crusaders on Friday but would still need to blow up spectacularly in their final two games not to claim top spot in the overall standings and a home semi-final.
There will have been a few nervous glances in the New Zealand capital at the Highlanders charging up on their tail, however, particularly as Jamie Joseph's side are their next opponents in Napier next Friday.
The Highlanders usually start the season strongly only to run out of gas at the business end but Saturday's 36-9 thrashing of twice champions Waikato Chiefs, which secured them a playoff spot, was their third straight win.
They would still need to win their last two matches with bonus points and hope the Hurricanes got nothing out of next week's clash or their final encounter with the Chiefs to overhaul the Wellington side at the death, however.
The Stormers also recorded a third successive win in impressive fashion with their 42-12 dismantling of the Cheetahs in Cape Town on Saturday to move one win away from securing the South African conference title.
They would probably need to take full points from both of their final two matches against the Lions and Sharks, however, to secure second place in the standings and ensure they skip the first round of playoffs and go straight into a home semi-final.
The Lions profited from some ill-discipline from the New South Wales Waratahs to keep alive their playoff hopes with a 27-22 victory over the reigning champions in Johannesburg.
The Waratahs should still see off the challenge of the ACT Brumbies at the top of the Australian conference with the hapless Cheetahs and struggling Queensland Reds their final two opponents.
Whether they manage to overhaul the one-point deficit on the Stormers and secure home advantage and a semi-final, however, could come down to how many tries their stuttering attack manage to score.
"Look, we stayed in the fight at least," coach Michael Cheika said in a pitch-side interview at Ellis Park. "We weren't good at all (but) we never give up, that's one thing about us.
"I know we're not the most loved team in the world but we won't give up until right at the end of the competition."