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SA noose tightens on Super 14
NZPA
May 3, 2010
Crusaders captain Richie McCaw is wrapped up by the Stormers, Stormers v Crusaders, Super 14, Newlands, Capte Town, South Africa, April 30, 2010
The Crusaders' Richie McCaw is wrapped up by the Stormers defence on the occasion of his 100th Super Rugby appearance © Getty Images
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Preventing a third South African Super 14 title in four years seems beyond the capability of New Zealand's two remaining hopefuls unless form unseen can be dredged over the final month.

The defending champion Bulls and resurgent Stormers firmed as likely finalists following dominant wins over the weekend while New Zealand teams endured the sort of spluttering round that has typified the season. The Crusaders continue to stall badly, suffering a humbling defeat in Cape Town, while the Hurricanes just kept their head above water and the Blues joined the Chiefs and Highlanders in kissing goodnight to their chances.

A 36-32 loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein effectively ended the Blues' slim playoff hopes, one of the patchiest performances of an erratic season granting the struggling South Africans their third win. It leaves the Blues languishing in eighth, seven points outside the semifinal zone and lamenting yet another game their talent-laden side let slip through a high error count and lack of concentration.

Needing maximum points, they had to settle for two bonus points after the Cheetahs edged a nine-try thriller. Trailing 22-13 at halftime, the Blues fought back through tries to Rene Ranger and Alby Mathewson, leading by five points with a quarter of the match remaining. However, the hosts took command over the final stages, leaving the Blues contemplating a winnable finish to the season against the Lions and Chiefs although the results will probably be immaterial.

Not so the Hurricanes, who have their fate in their hands after producing a second consecutive high-scoring derby win. They came from 16 points down to see off the struggling Chiefs 33-27, scoring a bonus point try in the final play through prop Neemia Tialata. A barnstorming game from Ma'a Nonu -- at last discovering his best form -- was crucial. The burly second five-eighth set up a try and scored two of his own, including a decisive score to hand his team the lead 5min from time.

The Chiefs nearly stole the lead straight back but their goalkicking woes continued as Callum Bruce sent a potential matchwinning penalty wide from a handy spot. Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper must ready his men for a virtual knockout match at home to the Reds on Friday, with the Queenslanders sure to be stinging after their 32-12 loss to the Brumbies in Canberra.

"I have had a good look at the Reds, they are no fluke where they are at," Cooper told reporters. "They probably use the ball better than anyone. They have a lot of options from set piece with their No 9 (Will Genia) and No 10 (Quade Cooper)."

The Hurricanes are in seventh place with 32 points, two behind the third-placed Reds and fourth-placed Crusaders, whose goal of a home semifinal is all-but extinguished following their 42-14 loss to the Stormers. From now it is more about survival.

The Stormers are second on 38, still five behind the Bulls, who beat the Sharks 27-19 and must face their high-flying compatriots in the final round. However, this weekend the Bulls host a Crusaders side coming off their biggest loss in more than seven years -- and a performance that did no justice to the 100th game of their captain Richie McCaw.

To end the Bulls' 17-match winning streak in Pretoria, Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder must hastily address his team's misfiring lineout, clarify their breakdown interpretation issues and find out why Daniel Carter is so far off the pace. Carter produced his most listless performance of a flat campaign, leaving the Crusaders backline with little pep behind a pack who muscled up well enough.

The New Zealand success story of the weekend came in Invercargill when the Highlanders notched just their third win and put a spanner in the Waratahs' play-off plans with a 26-10 win. Miserable conditions were like manna from heaven for the locals, with the likes of Jason Rutledge and Adam Thomson thriving while the Australian visitors looked like they couldn't get to the changing rooms quickly enough.

The only meaningless match of the round saw the Western Force snare a fourth win in five weeks, downing the winless Lions 33-12 in Johannesburg.

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