SYDNEY (AFP) – Defending champions Waikato Chiefs reached the summit of the Super 15 standings without even playing at the weekend after early season pacesetters ACT Brumbies’ late costly stumble at home.
The New Zealanders went top of the table courtesy of four points from their weekend bye as the Brumbies were surprisingly held to a 28-28 draw by competition newcomers the Southern Kings in Canberra on Friday.
Last season’s finalists Coastal Sharks are ominously poised in third place in the overall standings after downing the Canterbury Crusaders 21-17 to hold on to their South African conference lead from the much-improved Central Cheetahs.
The Cheetahs won their fifth consecutive match with a dramatic 26-24 victory over Western Stormers in Saturday’s South African derby in Bloemfontein.
New Zealand’s Wellington Hurricanes powered into the top six with a 41-29 victory over the New South Wales Waratahs at home, while 2011 winners Queensland Reds and three-time champions Northern Bulls had byes.
The Auckland Blues returned to winning ways with a 29-18 victory over the winless Otago Highlanders, while the Melbourne Rebels returned from a disastrous South African tour to beat the Western Force 30-23 in Perth.
There was late drama in Canberra, where the Southern Kings fought back with a try three minutes after the fulltime siren to snatch a fighting draw with the Brumbies.
Number eight Cornell du Preez plunged over for his second try to cap a spirited comeback from the Port Elizabeth-based Kings to deny the Brumbies a victory after the Kings defended for most of the match.
The Kings capitalised on a out-of-sorts Brumbies to outscore the previous competition leaders four tries to two with only Christian Lealiifano’s goalkicking keeping the Brumbies ahead into the final moments.
Patrick Lambie succeeded with all seven penalty kicks to earn the Sharks a thrilling four-point victory over the seven-time champion Crusaders in Durban on Friday.
The Springbok fly-half landed three in the first half which ended with the visitors 11-9 ahead, and a further four during the second 40 minutes to give the Sharks only their third win in 17 clashes between the sides.
Rival pivot Tyler Bleyendaal, deputising for the unavailable All Black Dan Carter, landed only four of seven penalty attempts and also fluffed the conversion of the only try of the match scored by scrum-half Andy Ellis.
A second-half burst gave the Hurricanes maximum points over the Waratahs on Saturday after the New Zealand outfit led 19-16 at halftime.
After the resumption the game burst open as the Hurricanes pounced on turnover ball to punish the Waratahs with three quick tries to take a commanding lead.
The Cheetahs won five consective Super Rugby matches for the first time with a penalty after the fulltime siren by fly-half Burton Francis.
The Cheetahs, used to occasional victories in the southern hemisphere championship and a bottom-half position throughout the season, moved to second in the South African conference.
Blunders by former Auckland Blues player Ma’a Nonu helped the Blues to victory over the Highlanders at Eden Park on Friday.
Auckland scored two tries in the first half when the inside centre Nonu, who quit the Blues in the off-season to join the Highlanders, was off the field after being yellow carded for a dangerous shoulder charge on Piri Weepu.
And Weepu scored the second of his two tries late in the second half by finishing off an 80-metre move that started after Nonu kicked away possession, snuffing out a promising Highlanders attack.
The Rebels arrived in Perth a rabble after two thrashings in South Africa and also had two players sent home early, Kurtley Beale and Cooper Vuna, after an altercation.
However, they bounced back to notch their second win of the season on Saturday, both coming against the hapless Force.