Playoff contenders emerge in round nine
Two lines of competition have developed after round nine of the DHL Super Rugby Pacific competition over the Anzac observance round at the weekend.
Five teams, the Chiefs, Brumbies, Crusaders, Hurricanes and Blues, are contesting home games in the playoffs while the remainder are chasing the last three berths.
With all teams having completed their byes, the unbeaten Chiefs are five points clear on 36 points, while the Blues, in fifth, on 26 points, are 11 points clear of the Reds.
Chiefs 50 Fijian Drua 17
Three minutes was all it took for the Chiefs to open their scoring, courtesy of a blindside ruck snipe by halfback Cortez Ratima. Then four minutes later, a cross-kick from first five-eighths Bryn Gatland found flanker Samipeni Finau patrolling the right flank. He took the ball in space and fed wing Shaun Stevenson, who ran in his eighth try of the season. Fiji absorbed the early speed the Chiefs played at to open their scoring after 16 minutes when flanker Elia Canakaivata went over from a ruck under the Chiefs' posts. Finau was in action again on the end of a backline movement to be tackled short of the line, but with flanker Kaylum Boshier in close support, he picked up the ball to score. Then, a set move allowed McKenzie to enter the try-scoring action when sprinting hard around the defence to score. Second five-eighths Michael Naitokani got one back for Fiji from another goalline ruck. Still, Chiefs' hooker Samison Taukei'aho had the final say when the Drua failed to cover the restart and when the ball was free from a counter ruck. Taukei'aho picked it up to bullock his way to the line and a 31-12 lead at the break.
Breaking from their 22m area after a Chiefs' turnover, wing Ilaisa Droasese ran across the defence to space on the blank. Flanker Joseva Tamani was alongside him to take the ball to the line and then pass back infield to the supporting Droasese to score Fiji's last of the night. It took the Chiefs 20 minutes to regain their try-scoring touch. However, centre Daniel Rona got things moving with a strong break to provide lock Brodie Retallick with a 70th-minute try, followed in short order by fellow lock Tupou Vaa'i in a lineout drive and wing Etene Nanai-Seturo, who cut inside Rona to take his pass to score.
Chiefs 50 (Cortez Ratima, Shaun Stevenson, Kaylum Boshier, Damian McKenzie, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Brodie Retallick, Tupou Vaa'i, Etene Nanai-Seturo tries; McKenzie 5 con) Fijian Drua 17 (Elia Canakaivata, Michael Naitokani, Ilaisa Droasese tries; Teti Tela con). HT:31-12
Rebels 27 Crusaders 43
Looking uncomfortable despite the amount of possession they enjoyed, the Crusaders took 11 minutes to open the scoring when wing Macca Springer was on the end of a long looping pass from centre Braydon Ennor. A mistake when dropping the ball in front of their posts allowed Rebels flanker Brad Wilkin to slip over by the posts to score. Almost immediately, the Crusaders went back on the attack. In a defensive hit on second five-eighths, David Havili saw the ball pop up, and Rebels No8 Vaiolini Ekuasi onto it to run 85m for the home team to score two tries in two minutes. Havili responded after fullback Fergus Burke's chip into the 22m bounced for halfback Mitch Drummond to seize the ball and pass outside to Havili. Halfback Ryan Louwrens rode the confidence the Rebels were playing with to extend their lead with a try by the posts to enjoy a 24-12 halftime lead.
Waiting 14 minutes to take a chance, Havili got the Crusaders' recovery underway when barging through the defence to score his second. Ekuasi was sin-binned for a goalline infringement after Havili's broke saw replacement halfback Willi Heinz caught just short of the line. Cullen Grace marked his return in the resulting play when standing off a ruck to drive over for a try that saw them reclaim the lead. Centre Reece Hodge put the Rebels back in front with a penalty goal, but 10 minutes out from the end, replacement hooker Ioane Moanunu stepped his way through the embarrassed home defence for a try. Then, two minutes into extra time, a blindside play saw replacement Dallas McLeod fed in by first five-eighths Richie Mo'unga for a bonus point try.
Rebels 27 (Brad Wilkin, Vaiolini Ekuasi, Ryan Louwrens tries; Reece Hodge 3 con, 2 pen) Crusaders 43 (Macca Springer, David Havili 2, Cullen Grace, Ioane Moanunu, Dallas McLeod tries; Richie Mo'unga 5 con, pen). HT: 12-24
Blues 55 Waratahs 21
Lesser lights in the Blues squad set their stall to be involved in the latter part of their campaign with significant contributions in the win over a disappointing Waratahs side. Hooker Ricky Riccitelli confirmed his position as the No1 choice on form this year. At the same time, replacement fullback Zarn Sullivan showed his readiness to step up should the shoulder injury suffered by Stephen Perofeta prove to be a longer-term concern. Both scored two tries in the seven-tries-to-three win over a Waratahs side whose only positive was to have scored three tries when, at one stage, it appeared they would be lucky to score any. Their kick-chase tactics failed for lack of chasers, and the Blues turned that to an advantage. Their only try of the first half came from a lineout mail with hooker Mahe Vailanu scoring. But he was sin-binned soon after, and Sullivan scored, having had an immediate impact. He featured twice in a move which saw centre Rieko Ioane have a try ruled out for landing in touch before grounding the ball.
The Blues built on their 20-7 halftime advantage with Riccitelli burrowing through to score under the crossbar, the same place wing Caleb Clarke scored after a move threatened to break down. The Waratahs punished the Blues' close-quarters defence when wing Dylan Pietsch and replacement halfback Teddy Wilson crossed. Still, it was inconsequential as the Blues responded with tries to lock Sam Darry and his replacement Cameron Suafoa to secure their sixth bonus point of the season.
Blues 55 (Ricky Riccitelli 2, Zarn Sullivan 2, Caleb Clarke, Cameron Suafoa, Sam Darry tries; Stephen Perofeta con, pen; Beauden Barrett 6 con, pen) Waratahs 21 (Mahe Vailani, Dylan Pietsch, Teddy Wilson tries; Ben Donaldson 2; Jack Bowen con). HT: 20-7
Force 30 Highlanders 17
First five-eighths Bryce Hegarty capped a fine break by wing Tony Pulu to open the scoring after four minutes, but the Force's pivotal moment in the game came around the 20-minute mark after lock Pari Pari Parkinson and prop Ethan de Groot were both sin-binned for maul infringements within moments of each other. The Highlanders did their best to hold out the home side. However, just before their players returned, the Force turned around a Highlanders' downfield kick. Fullback Chase Tiatia ran the ball back before wing Manasa Mataele was positioned well inside to score their second try. Then, just before halftime, No8 Marino Mikaele-Tu'u was the third sin-binning for a maul infringement. The Force weren't immune as the second five-eighths Hamish Stewart infringed on his line was also binned.
Wing Conor Garden-Bachop began a Highlanders' response with a 43rd-minute try, but flanker Shannon Frizell lost the ball over the line, while hooker Tom Horton was sin-binned. A try to hooker Andrew Makalio from a lineout maul drew the Highlanders within seven heading into the final quarter. But two penalty goals for the home side ended the resistance.
Force 30 (Bryce Hegarty, Manasa Mataele tries; Penalty try; Hegarty 2 con, 3 pen) Highlanders 17 (Connor Garden-Bachop, Andrew Makalio tries; Sam Gilbert 2 con, pen). HT: 24-3