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NSW Waratahs coach Darren Coleman is backing his underdog team as the Super Rugby Pacific competition enters the knockout quarter-final stage.
The NSW Waratahs will give game-breaking centre Izaia Perese every chance to prove his fitness as the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific season moves into knockout mode.
Waratahs coach Darren Coleman declared the title up for grabs, with all eight quarter-finalists needing to win three straight sudden-death encounters to snare the trophy.
Even Blues coach Leon McDonald is feeling nervous despite his table-toppers notching a record 13th consecutive win with a last-gasp 20-17 victory over the Waratahs by a largely second-string team in Sydney on Saturday night.
"We don't want to stop at 13. That would be a disaster," McDonald said ahead of the Blues' quarter-final against either the Highlanders in Auckland on Saturday night.
The Highlanders edged out the Western Force for eighth spot after nabbing a precious bonus point in a 31-30 loss to the Rebels in Melbourne on Sunday.
The Force were hoping to join fellow Australians teams the Brumbies, Waratahs and Queensland Reds in making the finals after upsetting the Hurricanes 27-22 on Friday night.
The fourth-placed Brumbies host the fifth-placed Hurricanes in Canberra on Saturday after limping into the playoffs on the back of three successive defeats, including a shock 32-22 loss to wooden spooners Moana Pasifika.
"It's pretty disappointing from our end. We were probably out-played, probably out-enthused," said Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa.
"We just need to regroup."
The Brumbies' defeat scuppered a predicted showdown with the Waratahs in the national capital that would have guaranteed at least one Australian team made the semi-finals.
The sixth-placed Waratahs will instead travel to Hamilton to face the third-placed Chiefs on Saturday.
"I can't lie. We had our sights and the probability was all leading us to Canberra," Coleman said.
"Even as a coaching group, we prepared like we were going to play in Canberra with our preview.
"So it was a waste of six hours. We won't do that again."
Coleman is approaching the finals as a completely new competition and maintains his side can snatch the title a year after enduring a winless campaign.
"We love being underdogs," he said.
"Our whole season, we were 101 (dollar outsiders) at the start of the year so we're going there to be underdogs against a good football team.
"We're going there to play the Chiefs and will do our best.
"We've got to go over there and get three wins. Start with the first one first."
Perese's season looked over when he suffered a medial ligament injury against the Hurricanes two weeks ago.
But Coleman said the Tahs' most destructive back could be a surprise starter against the Chiefs.
"We're going to give him a crack," the coach said.
"As in, we don't know if he'll play but we'll push him through this week. It's sudden death, we've got no reason to save him.
"But he's got to be able to function. It will be a race against the clock but we'll give him as long as we can."
The seventh-placed Reds play the second-placed Crusaders in the first quarter-final on Friday night in Christchurch.
SUPER RUGBY PACIFIC FINALS SCHEDULE WEEK 1 (all times AEST)
Crusaders v Queensland Reds at Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch, 5.05pm
Chiefs v Waratahs at FMG Stadium, Waikato - Hamilton, 2.35pm
Blues v Highlanders at Eden Park, Auckland, 5.05pm
Brumbies v Hurricanes at GIO Stadium, Canberra, 7.45pm