Brilliant away form and a glut of imminent home games have made the Western Force the firm favourite among the Australian teams to make the Super 14 rugby finals.
And if they maintain their momentum the Force also look poised for stronger representation when the Wallabies are selected after the competition with the likes of loose forward Richard Brown and centre Ryan Cross pushing into calculations.
The Australian Associated Press reports that the John Mitchell-coached Force (19 points) cruised up to fourth place at the end of round six, with a 36-28 win over the last-placed Highlanders (4) in Queenstown on Saturday.
The Perth-based franchise were third for a couple of hours until the Blues (20) moved above them with a last gasp 17-14 home win over the Stormers (13) in Auckland.
The Brumbies (15) climbed to sixth with a 29-23 home win over the Cheetahs (5), while the Waratahs (13) dropped to seventh following a 34-7 away loss to the Crusaders (29), the unbeaten ladder leader.
NSW were the only Australian team to lose in week six, as Queensland (12) maintained their revival by coming from 21-10 down to force a 24-24 draw with the Lions (7) in a decidedly mediocre contest in Johannesburg.
Saturday’s win was the Force’s fourth in five games outside Australia this season.
The Perth-based franchise play five of their last seven fixtures at home, including their next three.
They have to venture outside Australia only once more, in seven weeks time, to play the Hurricanes in Wellington in the penultimate round.
The Force have already played the three teams above them, beating the Blues and suffering bonus points losses to the Crusaders and Sharks.
“We are building momentum, and we have got a lot of home games now so we are really happy,” Force five-eighth Matt Giteau said.
Centre Ryan Cross produced another impressive performance, as the Force scored 16 unanswered points in the final quarter after some erratic early play.
“It was a tough game. We did not play too well but we’re still very happy to get the win,” Giteau said.
There was cheering news on the injury front for the Brumbies, who head into their bye week buoyed by a bonus point victory which gave them a 3-3 record and moved them up to sixth spot.
Doctors determined a hamstring injury suffered by fullback Mark Gerrard was not as bad as initially feared.
Wallabies back Gerrard could now be available for the Brumbies’ next match against the Chiefs, when the injury-hit franchise could have a full complement of players.
Wallabies backs Stirling Mortlock (shoulder) and Adam Ashley-Cooper (ankle), are both due to make their long-awaited comebacks from injury.
Brumbies coach Laurie Fisher said his side were well and truly back in the finals hunt despite having a tough draw in the second half of the tournament, during which they will play three of the current top four.
“At least we’re alive in the comp and we know that we’ve got plenty of improvement left in us,” Fisher said.
“It’s certainly been a battle this first six weeks. We’ve toiled pretty hard with a lot of young guys.
Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie was disappointed to come away pointless from the clash with the Crusaders, who piled on 28 unanswered points in 27 minutes after trailing 7-6 early in the second half.
“People will look at the scoreline and say the Tahs were rubbish but we’ll deal with that and move on,” McKenzie said.
“For 65, 70 minutes, we matched them, so to come away with nothing is frustrating.”
Wallabies fullback Chris Latham scored a last minute try and winger Clinton Schifcofske potted a match-tying conversion for Queensland, who scored three tries to two.
“The ball retention was a bit of an issue today and it’s something that we’ll look to improve on next week,” Reds skipper and halfback Sam Cordingley said.
The defending champion Bulls (8) now languish in 11th place, 11 points outside the top four, after crashing 43-27 to the Chiefs (13) in Rotorua.Tweet