Round 13 Wrap: Thrilling finish to regular season in store
Losses to the Hurricanes and Brumbies at the top of the DHL Super Rugby Pacific points table and wins for the Highlanders and Force in the lower half have opened up a fascinating last two weeks of the regular season.
The defending champion Crusaders have moved to second on 42 points, eight behind the Chiefs; the Brumbies are third on 41, the Blues are fourth on 38, and the Hurricanes fifth on 37.
Next week's Blues-Hurricanes game in Auckland is crucial in the race for home advantage in the playoffs.
The Force have reached eighth place, three points ahead of the Highlanders, who host the Reds next week and the Blues a week later.
In seventh and four points ahead of the Highlanders, the Reds are not secure either with the Highlanders and Fijian Drua away games to get through while the Force travel to the Rebels in Melbourne before hosting the Chiefs in Perth.
Moana Pasifika 7 Crusaders 41
The future guardians of Crusaders glory showed their hands in an emphatic win in windy conditions at Mt Smart Stadium on Friday. Blindside flanker Christian Lio-Willie scored the first after sharp work in the build-up from halfback Noah Hotham and hooker Brodie McAlister, who scored his fourth of the season later. Wing Macca Springer picked up the second. Prop Tamaiti Williams contributed to Springer's effort while constant presences were fullback Will Jordan, who also got on the scorecard, and centre Josh Goodhue. Rounding it all out with an assured display was first five-eighths, Fergus Burke.
It was a tough night for the home team, but although beaten, it was another significant display by one of the hardest workers for their cause, second five-eighths Levi Aumua. Skipper and No8 Solomone Funaki (25 tackles ) and flanker Alamanda Motuga (17) put in huge defensive displays, but it was the consistently higher pace of the Crusaders that made the difference allowing them to take advantage of 10 clean breaks to two and 19 offloads to seven.
Moana Pasifika 7 (Tima Fainga'anuku try; Christian Lealiifano con) Crusaders 41 (Christian Lio-Willie, Macca Springer, Will Jordan, Noah Hotham, Brodie McAlister, Scott Barrett tries; Fergus Burke 4 con, pen). HT: 0-29
Reds 26 Blues 45
Flanker Cameron Suafoa's growing stature was evident when fed into a lovely gap by first five-eighths Beauden Barrett to set up fullback Zarn Sullivan, who was outstanding throughout, for the first try. Another who shone in the Suncorp Stadium environment was wing Mark Telea. His run, after Barrett ran a dummy line, created a chance that was completed when he found Barrett in support to score. Skipper and lock Patrick Tuipulotu built on the forward power the Blues mustered to score a decisive first try in the second half when pushed over the line with support from his pack.
Sullivan and centre Bryce Heem combined to put replacement wing Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens in before Telea was rewarded for his contribution on the night, while halfback replacement Taufa Funaki capped the performance with the last try. The Reds were unable to match the Blues in attacking play and were generally best able to test the visitors through their pack, although fullback Jock Campbell's late touchdown was a rare opportunity taken. The Blues carried for 687m to 330 by the Reds and beat 32 defenders to 15. Surprisingly, the Blues were required to make 153 tackles to 140, but the Reds missed 32 tackles to 15, which was a significant factor in their loss.
Reds 26 (Josh Flook, Sef Fa'agase, Harry Wilson, Jock Campbell tries; Lawson Creighton 3 con) Blues 45 (Zarn Sullivan, Beauden Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, Mark Telea, Taufa Funaki tries; Barrett 2 con, pen; Mark Plummer 4 con). HT: 17-14
Highlanders 20 Rebels 17
Second five-eighths Sam Gilbert's value has increased at every outing during the Highlanders season, and he capped it with a last-minute penalty goal to revive his side's playoff hopes in Dunedin on Saturday. With so much on the line, there was little scoreboard dominance for either team. Highlanders' fullback Conor Garden-Bachop opened the scoring with a blindside try which had an element of luck as a touch by first five-eighths Freddie Burns might have been considered a knock-on by some. However, the Rebels applied themselves and, from a lineout, created a chance that saw No8 Richard Hardwick on hand to pick up the breakdown ball and dive across. A Nareki intercept took play to a metre from the Rebels line, and in the resulting play, it was a powerful surge by another of the home team's movers, prop Ethan de Groot, who power across to score.
Fifteen minutes into the second half, second five-eighths, Stacey Ili found a way over the line to level the scores. Five minutes later, Rebels first five-eighths Reece Hodge gave his side the lead for the first time with a penalty goal. But an early tackle, and a yellow card, for replacement hooker Jordan Uelese, allowed Gilbert to level the scores again. Finally, three minutes into injury time and the prospect of a golden point, Hardwick was penalised for not supporting his body weight at the tackle, and Gilbert stepped up to deliver the coup de grâce.
Highlanders 20 (Conor Garden-Bachop, Ethan de Groot tries; Sam Gilbert 2 con, 2 pen) Rebels 17 (Richard Hardwick, Stacey Ili tries; Reece Hodge 2 con, pen). HT: 14-7
Chiefs 23 Hurricanes 12
Facing a Chiefs team coming off their only loss of the season to the Reds, the Hurricanes knew they faced a tough contest in Hamilton on Saturday. They were not helped by stormy weather that impacted much of the game, and the home team, restored to more like full strength, took the game to the visitors through their forward pack. That netted two first-quarter tries to hooker Samisoni Taukei'aho and lock Tupou Vaa'i and a 10-0 halftime lead.
Six minutes into the second half Vaa'i struck again from another goalline ruck. Desperation became the mother of invention for the Hurricanes, who, despite the conditions, moved the ball around, and with 23 minutes left, fullback Josh Moorby was on the end of the line and in space. He kicked ahead and headed the Chiefs' defenders to win the race and score. Soon after landing a penalty goal to extend the lead to 20-5, first five-eighths Damian McKenzie hesitated and lost the ball, which was picked off by Hurricanes' No8 Braydon Iose, who set sail for the line 50m away and was not challenged. While that got them within eight, the Chiefs soon extended their advantage with a second McKenzie penalty goal.
Chiefs 23 (Samisoni Taukei'aho, Tupou Vaa'i 2 tries; Damian McKenzie con, 2 pen) Hurricanes 12 (Josh Moorby, Brayden Iose tries; Aidan Morgan con). HT: 10-0
Waratahs 32 Fijian Drua 18
Fullback Max Jorgensen produced two timely excursions into the Waratahs' backline to unleash direct overhead passes to his wings for Mark Nawaqanitawase and Dylan Pietsch to give the home team a 13-6 halftime lead in Sydney. But after a 45-minute first half, the Drua came back strong to score the first try 16 minutes into the second half, after some long-range work got them close to the line where hooker Tevita Ikanivere emerged from a goal line ruck to get the ball down to the TMO's satisfaction. That levelled the scores.
Jorgensen was back in the action when initiating a counter-attack which saw Nawaqanitawase carry the move on to link outside and then be on hand for the inside pass to score his second. Flanker Joseva Tamani picked off a faulty lineout tap just inside the Waratahs 22m line to pull the Drua back into contact. The Waratahs pulled out a lineout ball three minutes from the end to score the final try of the contest.
Waratahs 32 (Mark Nawaqanitawase 2, Dylan Pietsch, Langi Gleeson, Mahe Vailanu tries; Ben Donaldson 2 con, pen) Fijian Drua 18 (Tevita Ikanivere, Joseva Tamani tries; Caleb Muntz 2 pen), Kemu Valetini con): HT: 13-6
Force 34 Brumbies 19
Force forward power subdued an under-strength Brumbies side in Perth, and they emphasised that by opening the scoring with lock Felix Kalapu crossing for an unchallenged try standing off a goalline ruck. And they stuck to their formula boosted by a 15th-minute yellow card to Brumbies first five-eighths Jack Debreczeny. However, the Brumbies paid a severe price. From a five-metre scrum, the ball was freed for second five-eighths Hamish Stewart to break the defensive line at pace to score. It was the same result from a scrum a little further out with centre scoring. Up 21-0, they then had to face a Brumbies response which came in the 27th minute when flanker Charlie Cale was inside flying wing Corey Toole to take a pass and score. Lock Darcy Swain got the Brumbies back to 12-21 at the turn.
The replacement loose forward's telescopic arm got another try back for the Brumbies with 30 minutes left. Still, any hopes of a continuation were halted with 10 minutes left as replacement prop Marley Pearce, once again off a short pass from halfback Issak Fines. Fines' contribution was significant. He had a clear part in each try the Force scored.
Force 34 (Felix Kalapu, Hamish Stewart, Sam Spink, Marley Pearce tries; Max Burey 4 con, 2 pen) Brumbies 19 (Charlie Cale, Darcy Swain, Luke Reimer tries; Ryan Lonergan 2 con). HT: 21-12