now for the super semis

WELLINGTON - New Zealand sides started to flex their muscles as the battle for Super 14 playoff positions intensified over the weekend.

New Zealand teams now occupy three of the top five places in the hunt for the semi-finals, with the second-placed Sharks (31 points) from South Africa in danger of slipping out of the top four next week when they finally have a bye.

Pre-tournament favourites, the Sharks have played 10 successive games, often with a small core group of players who have not been rested and are showing signs of fatigue.

They lost their second successive game on Saturday in Durban, a 13-10 loss to the Canterbury Crusaders (26), who have still not recaptured the form that has guided them to seven Super titles, but are still winning matches.

Last week the Sharks lost to the bottom-placed Cheetahs. The Cheetahs were unable to repeat that performance, beaten 28-10 by the Waikato Chiefs (31 points), who are top of the table on points differential after their sixth successive win.

The third-placed Bulls (29) suffered a 32-31 loss to Australia's ACT Brumbies (27) on Friday and after sweeping through their first five games unbeaten are showing signs of their lengthy road trip.

The Bulls have lost three of their last four games, with the only win a 20-6 victory over the New South Wales Waratahs, who are slipping out of contention after a great start.

The Waratahs (28) were beaten 15-14 by the Western Force (23) in Sydney on Saturday, giving the Force a clean sweep of victories over the other Australian teams in the competition.

The Waratahs also have the bye before they head to South Africa for their final three games, all of which they must win to ensure a semi-final position. The Brumbies head to Wellington to play the Hurricanes (29), who accounted for South Africa's Stormers 34-11 on Saturday.

The Auckland Blues (28) ended the Otago Highlanders (22) three-game winning streak with a 26-6 victory at Eden Park.

South Africa's Lions beat the Reds 31-20 in Brisbane in a poor quality match between two sides. - Reuters