THE Waratahs have given themselves a great chance of defending their Super Rugby title but the Brumbies will have to do it the hard way after a disappointing 37-24 loss to the Crusaders in Canberra.
Needing just one point from the match against the Reds to stay on top of the Australian conference after the Brumbies were beaten, the Tahs took a 3-0 lead into half-time after a scrappy first 40 minutes in the 300th game between the arch-rivals.
But a yellow card to Reds forward Adam Thompson soon after the break opened the floodgates as captain Dave Dennis, Jacques Potgieter, Brendan McKibbin and Dean Mumm all crossed for five-pointers.
The result gave the Waratahs the week off before a home semi-final against the highest-placed winner of this weekend's sudden-death finals.
Those matches will have the Stormers, which finished third by virtue of topping the South African conference despite a last-round loss to the Sharks, host the Brumbies in Cape Town, and the Highlanders at home to the Chiefs in Dunedin.
The lowest-placed winner will face the Hurricanes, which also earned a week off after finishing on top of the New Zealand conference, in Wellington the following weekend.
Brumbies captain Stephen Moore said he was pleased with his team's lineout against the Crusaders but said it would need to work on its composure after falling down in that department against the Crusaders, who missed the finals for the first time since 2001.
"They're a good side and they put us under a lot of pressure. It's probably a good thing for us going into the finals," Moore said.
"We need to work on our general composure. When you play sides like these at this time of the year, there's always a lot of pressure and we need to be able to respond well."
The Brumbies will be sweating on the availability of champion flanker David Pocock who was substituted out of the game one minute before half-time against the Crusaders after copping a head knock.
Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham said he was confident Pocock, who has scored eight tries this season, most of them off the back of rolling mauls, would be right to take on the Stormers.
Larkham also said he would consider starting playmaker Matt Toomua in Cape Town after he looked impressive in his return from several weeks off with an ankle injury.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders will start favourites against the Chiefs after winning both encounters between the teams this season.
The Chiefs have struggled since losing five-eighth Aaron Cruden to an ACL injury in the 26-9 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch in round 10.
Replacement Marty McKenzie hasn't had anywhere the influence Cruden did, and again struggled in the 21-13 loss to the Hurricanes in New Plymouth on Saturday night.
SCORES: Highlanders 44 d Blues 7 in Dunedin; Western Force 13 d Rebels 11 in Melbourne; Crusaders 37 d Brumbies 24 in Canberra; Hurricanes 21 d Chiefs 13 in New Plymouth; Waratahs 31 d Reds 5 in Sydney; Cheetahs 42 d Bulls 29 in Pretoria; Sharks 34 d Stormers 12 in Durban.
- APN SPORTS BUREAU
FINALS WEEK 1
Highlanders v Chiefs
- in Dunedin
Stormers v Brumbies
- in Cape Town
Hurricanes and Waratahs
- get the week off and a home semi-final in week 2.