The Chiefs, who beat the ACT Brumbies 31-21 are assured of first place while the Crusaders have all but sewn up second place with their 42-18 win over the Waratahs in Christchurch.
For the Blues, who beat the Hurricanes 36-25, a solitary bonus point against the Highlanders in Auckland on Friday will guarantee a home quarterfinal. While a win for the Brumbies over the Rebels on Friday will retain a home quarterfinal for the top-ranked Australian side.
The Hurricanes, if either the Blues or Brumbies stumble, are the only other side with hopes of a home quarterfinal.
In the hunt for the seventh and eighth places, the Reds must beat the Fijian Drua in Suva to be assured, while the Highlanders would need to beat the Blues to guarantee a top eight finish. If they don't win, they need to hope the Force doesn't beat the Chiefs in Perth and that the Fijian Drua and Rebels don't win.
Blues and All Blacks wing Mark Telea's four tries against the Hurricanes livened the race for most tries in the season. He and Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson have scored 11 each, with Crusaders centre/wing Leicester Fainga'anuku on 10 tries.
Chiefs' first five-eighths/fullback Damian McKenzie has scored 148 points. Crusaders five-eighths Richie Mo'unga has 119, while others with more than 100 points are Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes-115), Sam Gilbert (Highlanders-113), and Reece Hodge (Rebels-112).
Highlanders 35, Reds 30
Try as the Reds might, they couldn't shake a Highlanders side as determined as they have been all season. Two converted tries up within 11 minutes, including a spectacular effort started from their goalline by dynamic No8 Harry Wilson and finished by replacement Jake Upfield. But, the Reds felt the effects of injuries to key players, and the Highlanders came back when getting Jona Nareki space from a lineout move to score. By the 26th minute, from a five-metre scrum, they levelled things up when No8 Hugh Renton ran off the scrum to score. Dangerous wing Suliasi Vunivalu responded from a Reds lineout play.
The home defence held the Reds out in the second half, three penalty goals being their only points, while into the final quarter, the Highlanders scored three tries to replacement prop Saula Ma'u and replacement fullback Conor Garden-Bachop, albeit with some luck involved, and the crowdpleaser in the final minute, replacement halfback Folau Fakatava who demonstrated his striking ability on the blindside with a 15-metre run to score in the corner and ensure departing franchise players, including halfback Aaron Smith, had a win in their last game at home. The Reds carried 447 metres to 357, they made 132 carries to 87, they won 90 rucks to 58, and they made only 103 tackles compared to 174 for the home team. But two key factors were the Reds missed 15 tackles – the same as the Highlanders, but less effectively than them, while the Highlanders won eight turnovers to five.
Highlanders 35 (Jona Nareki, Hugh Renton, Saula Ma'u, Conor Garden-Bachop, Folau Fakatava tries; Sam Gilbert 4 con; Freddie Burns con) Reds 30 (Liam Wright, Jake Upfield, Suliasi Vunivalu tries; Tom Lynagh 3 con, 3 pen). HT: 14-21
Melbourne Rebels 52 Western Force 14
The Rebels unleashed their running game to swamp a Force side guilty of too many stakes, despite centre Sam Spink scoring the game's first try and picking off an intercept in the second half to score. But it was all driven by a Rebels team that grew in confidence after making early inroads when taking their chances every time they got into the Force's 22m area. They led 19-7 at halftime and truly opened out in the second half in a celebration as they overcame recent disappointments.
Their statistical advantage said it was. They ran 600m to 362, beating 19 defenders to 14, making 15 offloads to five and conceding nine turnovers to 14 by the Force. The Force had to make 147 tackles to 89, and they missed 19 to 14 by the Rebels. The Force was also hit hard in the penalty stakes conceding 14-9.
Melbourne Rebels 52 (Ryan Louwrens, Brad Wilkin, Sam Talakai, Josh Kemeny, Richard Hardwick, Lachlan Anderson, Nick Jooste, Vaiolini Ekuasi tries; Reece Hodge 6 con) Western Force 14 (Sam Spink 2 tries; Max Burey 2 con). HT: 19-7
Fijian Drua 47 Moana Pasifika 46
Moana Pasifika wing Willie Havili dived over in the corner to open the scoring in the game. Meli Derenalagi levelled the scores two minutes later, and then home centre Iosefo Masi once again demonstrated his class with a brilliant solo try which started 60m out. Fullback Iliasa Droasese's speed backed that to score the third. Havili scored a second try after prop Ezekiel Lindenmuth scored from a maul. But left-wing Eroni Sau scored in the corner to keep the Drua in front. However, there was no containing Moana Pasifika centre Levi Aumua on the right flank. He initiated a thrust, passed infield and remained outside in support to take a pass and score. However, it wasn't until the first five-eighths, Christian Lealiifano kicked a penalty goal two minutes into the second half, that they regained the lead.
But it looked all over when Droasese and Masi (twice) took the lead to 47-27 heading into the final quarter. However, tries to prop Abraham Pole, Lealiifano, and a 78th-minute try to hooker Samiuela Moli left the prospect of a first win in the season hanging on Leallifano's conversion. The veteran pulled a handy chance to the left, and the Drua held on. The Drua carried 542m to 335, but Moana Pasifika beat 27 defenders to 20. Moana Pasifika had the superior lineout winning 14-5, and they won the mauls 8-2. The Drua also conceded 12 penalties to four.
Fijian Drua 47 (Meli Derenalagi, Iosefo Masi 3, Iliasa Droasese 2, Eroni Sau; tries Frank Lomani 6 con) Moana Pasifika 46 (Willie Havili 2, Ezekiel Lindenmuth, Levi Aumua, Abraham Pole, Christian Lealiifano, Samiuela Moli tries; Lealiifano 4 con, pen). HT: 26-24
Crusaders 42 Waratahs 18
The Crusaders ' attacking acumen swamped any hopes of a Waratahs triumph to run in 28 points to eight in the first half. Their speed, strength and style combined to demonstrate why the defending champions shape as a high hurdle for any contenders in the latter stages of the season. Fullback Fergus Burke was outstanding with his creative work resulting in a fine try scored by halfback Mitch Drummond. First five-eighths Richard Mo'unga looked to be approaching his best form with a classy display, while midfielders David Havili and Leicester Fainga'anuku were at their uncompromising best in a powerful display.
The Crusaders carried for 725 metres compared to 473 for the Waratahs and made 10 clean breaks to four. The home team also picked up nine turnovers to seven. The Crusaders conceded penalties early in the game, losing that battle 13-9, with Leicester Fainga'anuku earning 10 minutes in the sin-bin after the side had been warned.
Crusaders 42 (David Havili, Codie Taylor, Mitch Drummond, Fergus Burke, Richie Mo'unga, S Havili Talitui tries; Mo'unga 6 con) Waratahs 18 (Jake Gordon, Dylan Pietsch, Nephi Leatigaga tries; Ben Donaldson pen). HT: 28-8
Blues 36 Hurricanes 25
Wing Mark Telea stamped his class all over the Blues' 36-25 win with four tries. He was in everything and, as the Hurricanes threatened to punish every Blues mistake – of which there were too many for comfort- the competitive play of fellow wing Caleb Clarke in chasing restarts so effectively proved an immediate counter to any tries the Hurricanes scored. That, and some midfield impetus from second five-eighths Bryce Heem and fullback Zarn Sullivan's subtle skills of placement and opportunism, rewarded the forwards' dominance upfront. Telea's best try, his second, started from a backhand flick by first five-eighths Harry Plummer tidying up off lost ball. Telea broke through converging tacklers and then, applying the foot to the floor, raced in under the crossbar from 50m out.
The Hurricanes pegged back one try when the Blues couldn't control a turnover they had won. Lock Isaia Leawere-Walker punched through the defence and fed his partner James Blackwell, who slipped the ball to halfback Cameron Roigard who scored. Two of their tries to centre Billy Proctor and one of two by wing Kini Naholo came by punishing Blues backline mistakes. After a poor first half in the possession stakes, the visitors lessened the statistical margins in the second but couldn't string enough plays together. A dysfunctional lineout and an off night with goal-kicking duties for second five-eighths Jordie Barrett did not help them. They also opted to take scrums when shots for penalty goals might have been wiser to put pressure on the Blues.
Blues 36 (Mark Telea 4, Hoskins Sotutu, Rieko Ioane tries; Harry Plummer 2 con; Stephen Perofeta con) Hurricanes 25 (Cameron Roigard, Billy Proctor, Kini Naholo 2 tries; Jordie Barrett con, pen). HT: 19-10
Brumbies 21, Chiefs 31
The competition-leading Chiefs left the Brumbies with plenty to think about in Canberra. The home team carried more metres, made twice as many offloads, won 127 rucks to 78 and dominated the lineouts 16-7. They made only 135 tackles compared to 210 for the Chiefs. Yet the Brumbies missed 33 tackles to 23 and couldn't make an impact. Chiefs No8 Luke Jacobson set the tone for his Chiefs side from the outset with a scarcely believable blindside run off a scrum 45m out from the Brumbies line. Two defenders entangled themselves in one another when he sold them a dummy. Home centre Leni Ikitau negated the score difference with a try that took Chiefs halfback Brad Weber out of the game with a head knock. For 20 minutes after, it was an even contest before the first five-eighths. Josh Ioane showed his class in baffling the home defence to score untouched.
Up 17-7 at the break, the Chiefs extended their lead when the Brumbies attempted an inside pass only to see it picked off by Weber's replacement Cortez Ratima who ran 40m to score. Ratima featured again when giving wing Emoni Narawa a chance down the sideline flank. He made good ground before a cover tackle allowed him to slip the ball to fullback Shaun Stevenson who scored. The Brumbies had the consolation of late tries to wing Corey Toole and No8 Pete Samu, but it was a dent in their record at home against the Chiefs, whom they had beaten in five of their six previous games.
Brumbies 21 (Len Ikitau, Corey Toole, Pete Samu tries; Noah Lolesio con; Jack Debreczeni con Chiefs 31 (Luke Jacobson, Josh Ioane, Cortez Ratima, Shaun Stevenson tries; Damian McKenzie 4 con, pen). HT: 17-7