Tonderai Chavhanga of the Sharks and Rayno Benjamin of the Cheetahs wrestle for the ball during their thriller Super Rugby clash in Bloemfontein. Photo: Johan Pretorius

Sydney – The New South Wales Waratahs secured top spot in Super Rugby with another superb performance Sunday after the Coastal Sharks stumbled to a second straight defeat.

The Waratahs hammered Otago Highlanders 44-16, scoring six tries to one at home to give them an unassailable seven-point lead heading into next weekend’s final regular round before the play-offs.

It was the Sydneysiders’ sixth straight victory and their biggest win over the Highlanders to underline their favourites tag for this year’s Super 15 title.

The Sharks’ Super 15 title hopes suffered a major setback when they lost 27-20 to the lowly Central Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.

All the long-time southern hemisphere provincial championship leaders from Durban took from the match was a losing bonus point.

It brought them level with the record seven-time champion Crusaders on 46 points, but the South Africans stay third because of an inferior points difference.

Whichever team finishes second after the final league round gets a bye into the semi-finals and a home fixture, with the side finishing third needing a home play-off win over the sixth-place team on the final standings to reach the semi-finals.

The Crusaders secured their 13th consecutive Super Rugby play-offs berth with a 21-13 victory over the Auckland Blues in Christchurch.

Canterbury lie four points ahead of the Highlanders, while the Wellington Hurricanes remain fifth overall after going down 24-16 to the defending champions Waikato Chiefs in Hamilton.

The ACT Brumbies, who had a bye this weekend, cling on to the sixth and last play-off position but face a do-or-die showdown with fellow Australians Western Force in Canberra next weekend.

The Force kept their hopes of a maiden finals appearance alive with a 30-20 win over the Queensland Reds in Perth.

The Waratahs were in irresistible form, racing away from the Highlanders in the second half for a bonus-point win after shading the Kiwis 11-9 at halftime.

The Waratahs are clearly enjoying their rugby under coach Michael Cheika as they chase their first Super Rugby championship after being runners-up in 2005 and 2008.

Jake White’s Sharks face the in-form Stormers away next weekend and defeat means they will be pitched into a sudden-death game against the sixth-placed team in the opening weekend of the play-offs.

It was only the fourth victory of the season for the Cheetahs, who have failed to match their 2013 showing when they reached the play-offs.

A dash of Fijian Nemani Nadolo brilliance got the Crusaders home with his second try seven minutes from time.

With Dan Carter’s conversion it lifted the Crusaders from a narrow 14-13 lead to eight points ahead and left the Blues with the near impossible task of having to score twice in the closing minutes.

The Chiefs kept their faltering title defence on track with a tight win over the Hurricanes.

Waikato, looking for three titles in a row, scored two tries to one to snap a three-game losing streak in a match that was essentially a knock-out round for both teams as they look to secure a top six finals berth.

The Chiefs will face a tough New Zealand derby against the Auckland Blues to guarantee their post-season spot next week.

Western Force dominated the Reds for long periods but found themselves under siege with 10 minutes to go, before scoring a late try to secure the win.

The Force, who ran in three tries, missed the chance to climb to second in the Australian conference when they were unable to add a fourth try for a bonus point.

In the weekend’s remaining games with no play-off consequence, the Northern Bulls lost their slim chance of making the finals in a 16-0 defeat to the Western Stormers, while the Golden Lions downed the Melbourne Rebels 34-17. – Sapa-AFP