SYDNEY: The Auckland Blues will be out to snap a decade-long playoff drought when three unbeaten New Zealand teams vie for two places in the final over the last round of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman at the weekend.
The Blues top the standings by a point and will be assured of hosting the June 19 final at their Eden Park home if they can beat Australia's Western Force with a bonus point on Saturday night.
Super Rugby champions in 1996, 1997 and 2003, the Blues have not made the playoffs since 2011 and last hosted a final 18 years ago when they beat the Canterbury Crusaders for their third title.
"We know we are in unchartered waters for this group of men, but we will be stressing that we keep on doing what has been working for us," said coach Leon MacDonald.
"Keep it simple, be smart, work hard and believe in each other. Do that and good things should happen."
Failure to secure a bonus point by scoring at least three tries more than the Force on Saturday would probably leave the Blues in a tie with the Crusaders and the Otago Highlanders, who are both a point behind them in the standings.
The first tiebreaker for teams tied on points is number of wins in the competition, followed by the highest aggregate points difference from all matches.
The Blues (+109) have the best points difference of the trio going into the final round, ahead of the Highlanders (+82) and the Crusaders (+71).
The Highlanders take on the ACT Brumbies on Friday night in Canberra, where they will be looking to lock up the bonus point and extend their points difference advantage over Super Rugby Aotearoa champions the Crusaders.
The Crusaders are therefore likely to know exactly what they need to do to get ahead of the Highlanders before they play the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday in a contest switched to Sydney because of Victoria's COVID-19 lockdown.
The Wellington Hurricanes, who take on the Queensland Reds on Friday, and Waikato Chiefs still have mathematical chances of making the final if they win their fifth-round matches but would need two of the top three to slip up.
The Australian teams, with only two victories from 20 matches between the five of them, can impact the make-up of the final only by denying their opponents victories, bonus points and high points tallies.
The New South Wales Waratahs have their last chance to avoid a winless season when they host the Chiefs at Sydney's Brookvale Oval on Saturday night.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Editing by Peter Rutherford)