Michael Cheika's Waratahs lead the Sharks by three points and locked up the Australian conference with their fifth straight win. Photo: Franck Fife

Sydney – The New South Wales Waratahs improved their chances of a first-ever Super Rugby title with a dominant win over the ACT Brumbies to go top of the standings this weekend.

The Waratahs mastered the two-time champions 39-8 to knock South Africa’s Coastal Sharks off the top of the standings just two weeks out from the play-offs.

Michael Cheika’s side lead the Sharks by three points and locked up the Australian conference with their fifth straight win to be in the box seat to host a semi-final next month.

The Sharks along with the other South African sides had the weekend off with the Springboks playing Scotland, and finish their regular season away against the Central Cheetahs and Western Stormers.

Seven-time winners Canterbury Crusaders had a setback when they went down 16-9 to the Hurricanes in Wellington and cling to the lead in the New Zealand conference on points differential from the Otago Highlanders.

The Highlanders rocked back-to-back champions Waikato Chiefs 29-25 in Dunedin and travel to Sydney next Sunday to face the Waratahs.

The Auckland Blues won their first away game in 14 attempts to undermine the playoff chances of Western Force with a 40-14 win in Perth.

In the weekend’s remaining game with no finals consequence, the Queensland Reds scored six tries to down the Rebels 36-20 in Melbourne.

The Waratahs, who are bidding for their first Super Rugby title after finishing runners-up in 2005 and 2008, remain unbeaten in seven games at home this season and are running into championship form at the right time.

The 31-point winning margin was not far short of their biggest win over the Brumbies of 34 points set three years ago with winger Alofa Alofa scoring two of the six tries.

The Waratahs played some cohesive rugby to lead 14-5 at halftime and outscored the Brumbies in the second half 25-3.

Two tries to Blade Thompson carried the Hurricanes to an upset victory over the Crusaders.

The lock scored the only tries in the cliffhanger match, with the Hurricanes’s second win of the season over the Crusaders keeping alive their hopes of making the play-offs.

The Crusaders continue to lead the New Zealand conference, equal with the Highlanders on 42 points while the Hurricanes are one point behind on 41.

The Chiefs suffered a major blow to their hopes of defending the Super 15 title with a tight loss to the Highlanders.

The Chiefs, champions in 2012 and 2013, scored three tries to two and led through long periods of the match, but could not shake a dogged Highlanders side determined to secure a finals berth.

They are fourth in the New Zealand conference and face a tough task to secure a top-six spot in the overall ladder for the chance to defend the title.

A stunning opening assault from the Auckland Blues powered them to a big win over the Western Force.

The Blues produced some of their best rugby of the season in the opening 20 minutes to shock the Force, who were desperate to win to keep their finals hopes on track.

However, it was the visitors that made all the play from the outset to keep their own slim playoff hopes alive and turn around their poor away form, storming to a match-winning 26-0 lead on the back of four tries in the first 18 minutes of play.

The Queensland Reds, playing without injured Wallaby halves Quade Cooper and Will Genia, were never in any danger of losing to the Rebels and led 22-3 at halftime. – Sapa-AFP