Newspaper article International New York Times

Waratahs Are the Team to Beat in Super Rugby ; New South Wales Squad, Perched atop Standings, Is Aiming for Playoff Bye

Newspaper article International New York Times

Waratahs Are the Team to Beat in Super Rugby ; New South Wales Squad, Perched atop Standings, Is Aiming for Playoff Bye

Article excerpt

The regular season finishes this weekend, and the Waratahs have already wrapped up the top spot in the standings.

The New South Wales Waratahs have not played in a Super Rugby final since 2008 and have never been champions, but they are shaping up as the team to beat this year.

The regular season finishes this weekend, and the Waratahs have already wrapped up the top spot in the standings as they prepare to take on the Queensland Reds in Brisbane, Australia, on Saturday.

The Waratahs, at 11-4, the Crusaders (10-5) and Sharks (10-5) are the only teams so far with guaranteed spots in the six-team playoffs. It is the tightest regular-season race since the conference system was introduced in Super Rugby in 2011.

The first- and second-place teams get a bye in the first round of the playoffs and will host their semifinal, so there is plenty of incentive for the three teams who still have a chance to finish second.

Altogether, eight teams still are alive in the playoff chase.

It will be either the Sharks, who won the South Africa conference, the Crusaders or the Highlanders who will take that coveted second spot. The latter two will battle it out for the New Zealand conference title on Saturday.

The conference winner with the most competition points takes second, while the other will have to play in the opening round of the playoffs as the third-place team.

The Highlanders have been dealt a blow, however, with standout fullback Ben Smith ruled out after a leg infection left him in the hospital.

The Crusaders, who have won seven Super Rugby titles, have been further lifted by the return of the experienced international players Kieran Read and Dan Carter in the past couple of weeks, although New Zealand captain Richie McCaw is still out with a broken rib.

Carter, in particular, is fresh, having just returned from a six- month sabbatical. "I was watching the boys performing well before the break for the June international matches, and I just wanted to be part of that," he said. "You don't realize how much you miss it until you are actually out there playing."

Since 2011, the champion has always finished in the top two. The Queensland Reds finished first in 2011, while the Chiefs won back- to-back titles after finishing second in 2012 and first in 2013. …

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