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Hurricanes faltering as Super Rugby playoffs near

By STEVE McMORRAN

AP Sports Writer

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) The Wellington-based Hurricanes hope a match against a team with a longer losing streak than their own will help them pull out of a late-season tailspin in Super Rugby two weeks before the playoffs.

The Hurricanes won 10 straight matches to rise to the top of the table at times but have since lost three in a row and need a win over the Auckland-based Blues on Saturday to regain form before the regular season ends.

The Blues haven't beaten a New Zealand rival in almost three seasons and the Hurricanes see an opportunity to recover momentum in front of a home crowd. But coach Chris Boyd realizes results can be unpredictable late in the season when teams are desperate to reach the playoffs or to atone for having failed to do so.

That was driven home to the Hurricanes last weekend when they lost in Canberra to the ACT Brumbies, a team they were expected to beat but which had to win to keep its own playoff hopes alive.

"I was a little nervous before that game because I knew that they had a lot to play for," Boyd said. "Not that we didn't. But this was a drop-dead situation for them and they'll be exactly the same next week."

"They go to the Chiefs in Hamilton (on Saturday) and they lose that game and their season's over. So when one team has got a massive amount to play for and the other has got not quite as much, then I think you can get exposed in those situations."

The Hurricanes are still second behind the Christchurch-based Crusaders in the New Zealand conference and are likely to make the playoffs even if they don't win their last two regular-season matches against the Blues and Chiefs. But they want to go into the postseason with winning momentum and that makes Saturday's match against the Blues, who are out of playoff contention, more important.

The Crusaders have a nine-point lead in the New Zealand conference which should be enough to ensure they finish the regular season in first place both in the region and on overall standings. They play the Dunedin-based Highlanders on Friday and the Blues in their last regular-season match.

The return on Friday of All Blacks captain Keiran Read, who will play his first Super Rugby match of the year after recovering from back surgery, will boost the Crusaders as they step up their defense of the title.

Read said he wasn't yet up to playing a full 80 minutes and had the choice between starting and coming off the bench. He chose the former.

"Starting and getting the opportunity to empty the tank . I will try that," he said. "In terms of the back it feels really good. That's a bonus."

In Australia, the New South Wales Waratahs stretched their conference lead to four points with last week's win over the second-place Melbourne Rebels and could clinch first place when they play Japan's Sunwolves on Saturday. The Rebels play Queensland on Friday.

The Johannesburg-based Lions lead the African conference by only three points from Argentina's Jaguares, who shrugged off the Pumas' poor form in June tests to post their seventh straight win last weekend. That heaps pressure on the Lions, who have a bye this weekend while the Jaguares could go into first if they beat the Pretoria-based Bulls.

In their last regular-season matches, the Lions face the Bulls and the Jaguares play the Sharks.

Updated July 5, 2018