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Australian teams' streak against New Zealand ends at one as conference tightens

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WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Australian teams’ supremacy over New Zealand opposition in Super Rugby might not have lasted more than one game but New South Wales Waratahs coach Daryl Gibson was convinced his side were tracking the right way as the playoffs loomed more sharply into focus.

The Waratahs ended a 40-game, and more than two-year, losing streak by Australian sides against New Zealand teams when they beat a 14-man Otago Highlanders 41-12 in Sydney last week.

Gibson’s team were, however, unable to extend that beyond one game when they suffered a 39-27 loss to the Waikato Chiefs on Saturday but the coach said there were positives to take from the loss.

“We’re close… we’re competing,” Gibson said. “(But) there’s plenty there to work on.”

The Waratahs have proved over the last three weeks they are the best team in Australia, when they get it right, but they still have plenty to work on.

They raced out to a 29-0 lead two weeks ago against defending champion Canterbury Crusaders before losing 31-29.

They established a 14-0 lead against the Chiefs before the home side rallied and secured a bonus-point win with a late Damian McKenzie try.

That try denied the Waratahs a bonus point for finishing within seven of the home side, which could be crucial in the overall playoffs picture.

The Waratahs lead the Australian conference on 31 points, but just have a one-point lead over the Melbourne Rebels, who thrashed an under-strength Sunwolves 40-13 on Friday.

“In the context of our season, it was really important that we got those five points,” Rebels coach Dave Wessels said of the bonus-point victory courtesy of a hat-trick of tries to Marika Koroibete and two to fellow winger Jack Maddocks.

“We are going to enjoy (the) win because it has brought some confidence back into the group.”

Confidence will be essential for both teams in the final part of the season.

Each of the three conference winners are guaranteed a playoff spot, but with the remaining five positions based on overall points, the chance of two Australian sides making it are still up in the air.

Four of New Zealand’s teams and two in the South African conference – the Lions (40) and Jaguares (34) – have more points than both the Waratahs and Rebels. The Sharks (28) could also still sneak in as the eighth-qualifier.

The Waratahs’ final four games are against Australian conference teams, including a crucial clash against the Rebels in Melbourne after the June international break.

The Rebels, however, have a tougher run in with two games against New Zealand’s Auckland Blues at Eden Park next Saturday and the Highlanders in Dunedin in the final round.

(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)

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