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Sydney – Australia's ACT Brumbies' Super Rugby title push gained momentum with this weekend's win over champions Waikato Chiefs coupled with the shock loss of competition leaders Coastal Sharks at home.
The Brumbies sliced the Sharks' lead to just one point after mastering the back-to-back champions Waikato 41-23 in Canberra on Friday.
Jake White's Sharks, who are about to embark on a season-defining four match Australasian tour, were smashed 34-18 by New Zealand's Otago Highlanders in one of the shock results of the season in Durban.
The Chiefs paid for their loss to the Brumbies with the Wellington Hurricanes displacing them at the top of the New Zealand conference after a 35-21 home win over the fading Queensland Reds.
Season surprises Western Force held on to their fourth place overall with a gritty 15-9 win over the Northern Bulls to send the South African triple Super Rugby champions home without a win on their away tour.
The NSW Waratahs continued to be thwarted at Eden Park where they lost 21-13 to the lower-ranked Auckland Blues to slip to sixth overall.
In the weekend's remaining match the Central Cheetahs kept the Western Stormers on the bottom of the standings with a 35-22 win in a South African derby in Bloemfontein.
The Sharks, who have played seven of their opening nine games at home this season, lost for just the second time this year to the Highlanders.
The Highlanders combined strong, creative running and impressive field kicking to deadly effect, scoring four tries for a bonus-point triumph at Kings Park after building a 24-12 half-time lead.
The Dunedin outfit achieved victory despite struggling at the scrums and line-outs, being repeatedly penalised, and having lock Joe Wheeler sin-binned on 50 minutes.
In Canberra, the Brumbies ran in five tries in an impressive bonus-point win over the Chiefs in a rematch of last year's Super Rugby final.
The Brumbies dominated the Chiefs to lead 36-9 after 63 minutes with 18 straight points while Chiefs replacement James Lowe was given a yellow card for tripping.
The Chiefs hit back with two late converted tries to reduce the final margin.
A month after being written off as Super 15 pushovers, the Hurricanes capped a stunning revival by going top of the New Zealand conference with victory over the Reds.
Cory Jane scored a hat-trick of tries as the 'Canes dotted down five times to claim a bonus point.
It was another unsuccessful mission for the Reds Ä supposedly refreshed after a bye last week Ä in what is rapidly becoming a disastrous season for the 2011 champions.
They have now won just three of nine games while the Hurricanes, who won only one of their first five, have now bagged five from nine.
Western Force stayed on track for the playoffs with a hard-earned win over the Bulls in Perth.
The Force have never reached the finals, but moved one step closer when they notched their sixth win from nine matches this season on the back of the boot of South African flyhalf Sias Ebersohn and another strong defensive effort.
It moved the Perth-based franchise into second in the Australian conference, while the Bulls have just three wins from 10 matches after a ending a winless tour of Australia and New Zealand.
The Auckland Blues put a disruptive build-up behind them to topple the Waratahs, maintaining their unbeaten home record at Eden Park.
Capping a week dominated by the sudden return to rugby league of their high-profile code-hopper Benji Marshall, the Blues outscored the Sydneysiders two tries to one.
The Blues struggled throughout to hold the ascendency, while the Waratahs had ample possession but suffered from multiple handling errors.
The Waratahs have only one win in 10 visits to Eden Park.
Replacements Cornal Hendricks and Trevor Nyakane scored late tries to seal victory for the Cheetahs over the Stormers in a Super 15 basement battle. – Sapa-AFP