Highlanders beat Rebels 43-37 in Super Rugby

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) The Sharks clinched the last quarterfinal place in Super Rugby after beating the Jaguares 20-10 on Saturday, setting up an unenviable trip to the eight-time champion Crusaders of New Zealand in the playoffs.

The Sharks secured the victory they needed in the rain at home in Durban, with a first-half try by hooker Akker van der Merwe and a second-half score by wing Kobus van Wyk seeing them into the quarters in the last game of the regular season.

The Jaguares, who had already qualified for next weekend’s first round of knockout games, scored a late try through wing Sebastian Cancelliere to close the gap but the loss had no effect on their playoff place.

The Christchurch-based Crusaders, the defending champions, finished top of the standings and ended the regular season in style by beating the Blues 54-17. They will host the lowest-ranked of the quarterfinalists, the Sharks.

The Crusaders have lost just twice in 16 games this season, both to New Zealand opposition, and won every game at home.

”We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Sharks captain Ruan Botha said. ”It’s going to be a tough game in Christchurch.”

With their final-round win, the Sharks pushed the Melbourne Rebels out of the playoffs after the Rebels lost their last game to the Highlanders. The Dunedin-based Highlanders rallied from 17-3 down in the first half and 34-22 behind in the second to beat Melbourne 43-37.

Melbourne flyhalf Reece Hodge scored three tries among 27 points for the Rebels but that wasn’t enough to lift his team to the win it needed to secure a place in the quarters for the first time.

Behind the Crusaders, the Johannesburg-based Lions finished second in the overall standings with a 38-12, six-try win over the Bulls after trailing 12-0. Springboks Ruan Combrinck (twice), Malcolm Marx, Courtnall Skosan and Aphiwe Dyantyi crossed for the Lions, who also forced a scrum penalty try through their dominant set of forwards.

The Lions, who have lost in the last two finals, will host the Jaguares for a place in the last four. The other quarterfinal matchups are: New South Wales Waratahs vs. Highlanders, and an all-New Zealand battle between the Wellington-based Hurricanes and Hamilton-based Chiefs.

The Rebels were the biggest losers on the last day of the regular season.

They seemed to have the match against the Highlanders in safekeeping after brisk starts to both halves. But the Highlanders showed spirit to rally twice and to open a 43-34 lead before a late penalty by Jack Debreczini. A massive tackle by Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo on Rebels fullback Jack Maddocks after the final siren ended the last hope for a Rebels victory.

Winger George Bridge scored three tries to lift his tally for the season to 14 as the Crusaders passed 50 in their hammering of the Auckland-based Blues.

Bridge joined the Hurricanes’ Ben Lam and the Waratahs’ Taqele Naiyaravoro as the leading tryscorers in the regular season.

The Crusaders extended their winning streak to 12 matches. They last lost on March 17.

Center Jack Goodhue scored two tries and others went to Seta Tamanivalu, Sam Whitelock and Bryn Hall for the Crusaders.

Winger Melani Nanai scored a double for the Blues, who have gone three seasons without a win over a New Zealand rival.

The ACT Brumbies beat the Waratahs 40-31, although the Waratahs had already clinched their home quarterfinal by finishing first in the Australian conference.