Home advantage a factor in Super Rugby semifinals

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) Super Rugby semifinals between the Hurricanes and Chiefs and the Lions against the Highlanders this week will measure the current value of home advantage in the southern hemisphere tournament.

Over the course of its 21-year history, around 61 percent of Super Rugby's regular-season matches have been won by home teams and some statisticians have calculated the value of home advantage at 10 to 12 points.

In 2014, when the New South Wales Waratahs won the title in Sydney, 71 percent of matches were won by home teams. That fell to 57 percent in the regular season last year. However, three of five playoffs matches in 2015 were won by away teams, including the Highlanders' semifinal over the ACT Brumbies and the final in which they beat the Hurricanes to claim their first Super Rugby title.

A repeat of the 2015 final remains a possibility as the Hurricanes host the Chiefs in Wellington on Saturday and the Highlanders travel to Johannesburg to meet the Lions.

If they meet in the final, a distinct possibility, it will again be in Wellington where the Highlanders beat the top-ranked Hurricanes 21-14 a year ago.

Although the Lions' home stadium, Ellis Park, has been an imposing test venue for the Springboks for many years, it has been much less so in Super Rugby. The Lions have one of the weakest home records among Super Rugby teams at slightly more than 30 percent.

One of the factors contributing to the value of home advantage in Super Rugby is the unsually high toll of travel in a tournament spread across five countries in four continents.

If the Highlanders are to retain their title it will be after traveling in recent weeks from their home base in Dunedin to Port Elizabeth in South Africa, from there to Buenos Aires, from Argentina to Dunedin, from Dunedin to the Australian capital, Canberra, and from there to Johannesburg.

The Chiefs have flown from their Hamilton base to Cape Town, from Cape Town to Wellington and would have to return to South Africa if they and the Lions win on Saturday. However, the Highlanders and Chiefs are playing down the travel factor.

The Highlanders beat the Lions in Dunedin during the regular season but say they will be tougher on Saturday.

''They've been a consistently good team,'' coach Jamie Joseph said. ''We had a good game against the Lions but since they've been back in South Africa they've just gone from strength to strength.

''Unlike a lot of the South African teams they play a running game of football. They can maul, they can scrum so they've got a total game and I guess that's one of the big reasons why they're still here at this stage of the competition.''

Lions assistant coach Swys de Bruin agreed with Joseph that the Lions have improved since their third-round loss in Dunedin.

''I showed the guys a few clips of when we played them and they couldn't believe the basic mistakes we made,'' he said. ''We were not good at a few fundamentals, we didn't protect our ball well, we gave away some bad turnovers, we didn't pick our running lines well. From that point of view we've improved a lot.''

The Hurricanes-Chiefs match brings together the winners of two high-scoring quarterfinals; the Hurricanes beat the Sharks 41-0 in Wellington before the Chiefs' 60-21 demolition of the Stormers.

For the second year running, the Hurricanes head into the semifinal as favorites for the title. But they may be without captain Dane Coles, who has a rib injury, while the Chiefs regain All Blacks center Seta Tamanivalu and Sam Cane from injuries and may have former Japan captain Michael Leitch, who has recovered from a broken thumb.

Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said the Hurricanes remain the team to beat.

''They play at a real tempo, (have) the ability to keep the ball alive,'' he said. ''They've got a hell of a lot of firepower and the key to defeating them is being able to suppress a little bit of that.''