Super playoffs scramble has dramatic twists

TURNED ON ITS HEAD: The Highlanders' upset win in Wellington over the Hurricanes set the tone for the weekend's Super Rugby.
TURNED ON ITS HEAD: The Highlanders' upset win in Wellington over the Hurricanes set the tone for the weekend's Super Rugby.

Lost opportunities abounded as Super Rugby's race for the top six tightened even further after a dramatic 14th round.

With the Brumbies, Crusaders, Force and Hurricanes all losing, the Sharks, Highlanders and Waratahs were the big movers over a weekend that saw two red cards brandished for foul play, Reds playmaker Quade Cooper ruled out of the Wallabies' June series against France with a shoulder injury and the quality of rugby take a nosedive due to a combination of the high stakes and wintry conditions.

The Sharks' improbable 30-25 victory over the Crusaders in Christchurch, with the South Africans surviving a deserved 16th-minute red card to flanker Jean Deysel, not to mention a second-half sinbinning, has seen them go five points clear at the top of the overall standings.

But with just four points separating the next eight sides, the top six remains a wide open race as the June test break looms.

Australian conference leaders the Brumbies were kicking themselves after slumping to a 27-21 loss to the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, while the upstart Western Force also missed a chance to solidify their top-six prospects when they were well beaten 24-8 by the competition's bottom team, the Stormers.

Last night the Waratahs scored five tries to one and kept the visitors scoreless in the second half in beating the Lions 41-13 in Sydney.

There was also a contentious finish in the clash between the Australian conference's tailend Charlies in Brisbane, with the Reds pipped 30-27 by the Rebels to slump to their sixth straight defeat in a match that also saw Cooper suffer a serious shoulder injury.

Kiwi referee Steve Walsh found himself at the centre of more controversy when he red-carded Reds player Ed O'Donoghue on the TMO's recommendation for an alleged eye-gouge of Rebels loose forward Scott Higginbotham.

Walsh had initially awarded a penalty to the Reds which had put them in a strong position to push on for victory, but after strong urging from TMO Steve Lescinski revisited an incident on the deck that appeared to show O'Donoghue's fingers raking over the eye area of Higginbotham.

To add insult to injury, New Zealander Jason Woodward duly slotted the game-winning penalty as the Reds slumped to their worst losing streak since 2008.

The Brumbies were also not happy with the officiating in their defeat in Bloemfontein, but had the good grace to concede they had been their own worst enemies in an off-key performance.

The Highlanders' 18-16 Friday night victory in Wellington catapulted them to an unlikely fifth place on the overall standings and just a point behind the Chiefs at the top of the Kiwi conference.

With the Crusaders picking up only a bonus point against the Sharks, the New Zealand conference remains jam-packed with two huge derbies looming on Saturday as the Crusaders visit Dunedin and the Chiefs head to the capital to take on the Canes.