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May 30, 2017

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Brumbies left behind in Super 15 playoff

WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- After leading the Australian conference for most of the regular season, the ACT Brumbies were left behind when a series of surprise results affected the final scramble for playoff places in rugby's Super 15.

The Brumbies began the tournament's last regular-season round five points ahead of defending champion Queensland in the Australian conference and with a match against the lowly Auckland Blues, they seemed likely to secure a preferred route through the playoffs.

But their 30-16 home loss to the Blues, who won for only the fourth time in 16 matches, sent the Brumbies spinning out of the top-six playoff spots on Saturday.

Queensland took a four-try bonus point in a 32-16 win over New South Wales to finish first in Australia, and later results in South Africa shuffled the Brumbies down to a lowly seventh place.

Eight teams started the last round in contention and when the dust settled on a turbulent weekend, almost no aspect of the championship standings was left unchanged.

The Cape Town-based Stormers started the round in second place — their regular station throughout the second half of the season — but climbed to first when the previously first-place Waikato Chiefs were beaten 28-25 by the Wellington Hurricanes.

The Chiefs lost their last two matches to give up the chance to claim their first-ever minor premiership and to concede to the Stormers the No. 1 seeding for the playoffs.

The Hurricanes' win lifted them as high as fourth place at the start of the final round, but they were eventually overtaken by other squads.

When the Durban-based Sharks beat the Cheetahs 34-15 and the Pretoria-based Bulls beat the Lions 37-20 in the final match of the round, the Hurricanes were shuffled back to the eighth place in which they started the round.

The Stormers beat the Melbourne Rebels 26-21 after leading 16-0 at halftime, finishing the round-robin with 14 wins from their 16 games.

The Canterbury Crusaders lost their way after leading 32-3 at halftime against the Western Force but eventually won 38-24 to clinch fourth place and the best playoff draw for any team other than the conference winners. The Bulls eventually finished fifth and the Sharks sixth, setting up enticing matches in each stage of the playoffs which begin next weekend.

The first-place Stormers and second-place Chiefs have earned byes through the first playoff round and home advantage in the following week's semifinals. The Stormers, as the top-placed team, will carry that home advantage all the way to the final, if they get that far.

The Reds will play the Sharks in Brisbane and the seven-time champion Crusaders will take on the three-time champion Bulls in Christchurch in next Saturday's first round.

The winners of those matches will then progress to the following weekend's semifinals, with the lowest-placed qualifier playing the Stormers in Cape Town and the highest-placed team playing the Chiefs in Hamilton.

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