Crusaders hold first as South African merry-go-round continues
On Friday night, the Highlanders hosted the Hurricanes in the only New Zealand derby of the round. The teams last met in Wellington in round four of the competition with the Hurricanes stealing the match in the final moments and it looked like the Highlanders might reverse that result after spending almost the final ten minutes of the return match in the Hurricanes 22 whilst trailing by only 3 points. The Highlanders had managed to build an 11-point lead over the men from the capital but some wayward kicking from Marty Banks combined with horrendous tackling gifted the lead back to the Hurricanes. Still, repeated infringements by the Hurricanes handed the Highlanders multiple opportunities to take control of the match as the game came to a close but an inevitable handling error after four lineout attempts in a row saw the final score remaining 31-28 in the Hurricanes’ favour.
The Reds, who are about to embark on an African safari, played host to the Stormers in the following match and needed to restore some confidence after only earning wins against fellow Australian conference members in their matches to date. The Stormers, half-way through their tour of Australasia, were in a similar situation, having not defeated any opposition outside of their conference. What resulted was a nil-all halftime score and it wasn’t until the Stormers were reduced to 14 men after captain Siya Kolisi was sinbinned that any points were finally scored. The Reds capitalised on the carding, scoring 14 points in Kolisi’s absence and never relinquishing the lead from that point on, ultimately winning 24-12.
Next up, it was the big derby between the Lions and the Sharks. Going into the match, neither team had yet to bank a win against any other South African team but, somewhat ironically, were still first and second in the South African conference. The Lions, losing finalists for the last three years of Super Rugby, went into the match as favourites courtesy of playing at home but it was the Sharks who emerged as the apex predator. A yellow card to Lions second rower Rhyno Herbst paved the way for the Sharks to score 35 unanswered points, with left wing Makazole Mapimpi bagging a brace. The Lions managed to score their only points of the game in the dying minutes, but it was the Sharks who had the final say, scoring on fulltime to give them a 42-5 victory.
On Saturday, fans were treated to an afternoon game in Christchurch where the Crusaders hosted the Brumbies in their first home match since the tragic shootings last month. It was an exhilarating and sometimes chaotic game at times that the Crusaders only took a hold of in the second half. The Brumbies scored first through captain Christian Lealiifano giving the Canberrians the only points in the first stanza, but the Crusaders quickly asserted their dominance once the game resumed and netted 33 unanswered points. Young Tasman outside back Will Jordan managed two tries in quick succession after Brumbies wing Tony Pulu was yellow carded for a high tackle while Jordan tried to fall over the try line in 53rd minute. From that point on, the Crusaders never looked back and earned a bonus point 36-14 win – leaving them with a six-point lead atop the Super Rugby standings.
Later that evening, the Blues hosted the Waratahs in the second Australasian derby of the day. The Blues, on the back of three straight wins, were high on belief and came out of the blocks firing, building a 17-point lead in as many minutes. The Waratahs, who beat the defending champions and then lost to last year’s bottom-placed team in successive weeks, managed to claw back to within three points after Israel Folau scored a trademark try, leaping high to catch an up-and-under placed just over the Blues’ try line. Folau’s try moved him above ex-Blues player Doug Howlett to now stand supreme as the top try scorer in Super Rugby history. The two teams traded penalties and tries after halftime but the Waratahs never quite managed to catch the Blues, with the match finishing 32-29 in the home team’s favour.
Japan’s Sunwolves – fresh off of besting the Waratahs for the first time in their short history – travelled to Melbourne in the next match of the round, hoping to finally win two matches in a row. The Rebels, however, had other ideas, and fullback Reece Hodge scored the first try of the match after only six minutes of play. The Sunwolves were guilty of poor decision making and even worst handling which saw them well behind at halftime, chasing a 28-10 scoreline. Adding insult to injury, Sunwolves goalkicking maestro Hayden Parker missed a shot for the first time this season when trying to convert Semisi Masirewa’s try in the corner, meaning his run of 28 successful kicks in a row comes to an end. Although Masirewa bagged a double shortly after halftime (to go with his three tries last week), it was Hodge who earned bragging rights with a hattrick in the 62nd minute, paving the way for a big 42-15 victory for the Rebels. This win now gives them a seven-point buffer over their nearest Australian rivals, the Waratahs.
In the final match of the round, the Bulls hosted the Jaguares in Pretoria, looking to find some consistency in their results that has been lacking in the last few rounds. The Bulls, undefeated against South African opposition this season, were the form team in the republic until a couple of weeks ago when they were crushed at home against the previously winless Chiefs. Last week saw the team return to their winning ways against the Sharks but it’s hard to given too much credit to a team that can’t secure victory over any foreign opposition so the home match against the Jaguares was the perfect opportunity for redemption. Coach Pote Human obviously had plenty of faith in his charges because he rested playmaker Handre Pollard – a decision which looked to be paying off when the Bulls had control of the match 20-10 with only ten minutes to go. The Jaguares, who last week ceded victory in the final minutes to a tiring Chiefs side, finally threw caution to the wind, however, and dotted down twice to steal the match from under the Bulls’ nose, 22-20. The end result is that we’re left with no team in the South African conference having more than four wins, and no team having more than four losses; the battle for supremacy is as close as ever.
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