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Sharks stumble in Super Rugby playoffs race

May 31, 2014

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Sharks stumbled but held their place atop the championships table as Super Rugby headed into its month-long break for June tests, while the New South Wales Waratahs and Crusaders headed into the break with winning momentum.

South Africa’s Sharks won three of four matches in Australia and New Zealand to firm their claim to a home semifinal, then fluffed an apparently simple home game against the 11th-placed Stormers, going down 21-19 to a late dropped goal.

The Waratahs swept past defending champions the Chiefs 33-17 to move into second, two points behind the Sharks, while the Crusaders beat the Western Force 30-7 to rise to third and to stay atop the New Zealand conference.

The Crusaders owed their win, partly, to two of the three penalty tries awarded in the weekend’s 16th round.

Refereeing has gained increasing significance as the season has continued and the title race has become more intense, with some team’s chances pivoting on the outcome of a single match. Interventions from the television match official have become more common and more contentious while fans and coaches have become united in their concern that referees appear to be looking for excuses not to award tries.

Almost every try awarded in the 16th round — there were 39 in seven matches, including penalty tries — was subject to video scrutiny before being confirmed. In many cases, referees called on TMOs to determine whether interference or obstruction had occured in the leadup to a try, sometimes a considerable time before the try was scored.

Coaches have complained that tries are being disallowed over events that occured in their leadup but which were incidental to the scoring movement while fans assert their celebrations are being stifled by overlong scrutiny of the preliminary to any try.

The trends apparent during the weekend’s round suggested referees are getting tougher on any forms of obstruction which impede the defensive team and, in the sudden spate of penalty tries, on any illegalities in defense which hamper the attacking side.

The two tries awarded to the Crusaders in the last eight minutes of their match against the Western Force substantially inflated their winning margin but couldn’t be said to have awarded them the match. They led 16-0 at halftime but were under pressure from the Force, who scored early in the second half, when the tide swung against the visitors.

A series of penalties, a yellow card, then penalty tries for collapsing a maul and screwing a defensive scrum allowed the Crusaders to post their ninth win in 13 games and to move within four point of the Sharks.

But the Crusaders are likely to be harder hit than many teams by the break in the tournament for June test series between New Zealand and England, Australia and France and South Africa and Wales. They are likely to contribute nine players — more than any other New Zealand team — to the All Blacks test squad and can’t be sure of the condition those players will be in when Super Rugby resumes on June 27.

“We’ve been facing those challenges for a number of years now,” coach Todd Blackadder said. “We believe we’ve got a really good squad and some good depth and that’s showing at the moment.

The Waratahs continued to emerge as major players in Super Rugby with their confident, composed win over the Chiefs. They had an early try to winger Alofa Alofa disallowed because of obstruction but fullback Israel Folau scored his 11th try of the season — a franchise record — and flyhalf Bernard Foley strengthened his Wallabies selection claims by scoring a try among 20 points.

The Sharks’ unexpected loss to the Stormers, who won away from home for the first time this season, interupted their controlled march towards the semifinals. They must face the Stormers again, in Cape Town in the last round of the regular season, as they attempt to close out first place.

The Dunedin-based Highlanders and Wellington-based Hurricanes both clung on to places inside the top-six despite weekend losses. The Hurricanes followed their 45-8 win over the Chiefs with a 37-24 loss to the Blues, who were awarded a penalty try, while the Highlanders lost 38-31 to the Queensland Reds who scored the winning try after the fulltime siren.

The ACT Brumbies revived their playoffs claims with a 37-10 win over the Melbourne Rebels, but South Africa’s Bulls suffered a blow to their hopes when they were beaten 32-21 by the Lions.