Crusaders continue mid-season charge
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Seven-time champions the Crusaders continued their mid-season revival in Super Rugby with an 18-17 win over the Chiefs to lift themselves into the playoffs zone and to second place in the New Zealand conference.
After losing three of their first five matches, including an 18-10 home loss to the Chiefs, the Crusaders have won three in a row, becoming the first overseas team this season to win twice in South Africa and beating the champions on their home ground.
The Chiefs continue to struggle under the weight of injuries: Their last five matches have resulted in two losses, two draws and a narrow win over the 13th-place Melbourne Rebels. But they remain atop the New Zealand conference, three points ahead of the Crusaders, and in third place overall behind the Sharks and ACT Brumbies.
The Sharks stayed in first place with a 19-8 win over the Cheetahs in a drab South African derby, improving their record to 7-1 and increasing their lead to six points over the Brumbies, who had a 10th-round bye.
The New South Wales Waratahs moved up to fourth with a 19-12 home win over South Africa’s Bulls, displacing the Western Force, who lost 22-16 to the Melbourne Rebels to drop back to fifth, a point ahead of the Crusaders.
The next seven teams are within six points of sixth place. The Wellington-based Hurricanes briefly entered the top six after a 39-20 win on Friday over the Auckland Blues — their third-straight win — while the Blues fell back into 11th.
The Stormers broke a five-match losing streak with an 18-3 win over the Lions to lift themselves off the bottom of the ladder.
The Crusaders have been slow starters in recent seasons but have managed to recover to reach the final in 2011 and the semifinals in each of the last two years. Their gutsy win over the Chiefs on Saturday, achieved with six penalties to flyhalf Colin Craig, put them in contention to reach the playoffs for the 13th straight year.
Slade kicked three from three to give the Crusaders an early 9-3 lead but his opposite, Gareth Anscombe, landed four from four to put the Chiefs ahead for the first time, 12-9, after 37 minutes. Fullback Tom Marshall scored a try against his former teammates, the only try of the match, to give the Chiefs a 17-9 lead at halftime which was the largest lead of the match for either side.
Slade narrowed the gap with his fourth penalty in the 50th minute, hit the upright with his fifth and sixth attempts, then kicked goals in the 67th and 70th minutes to give the Crusaders their final, one-point lead.
Anscombe had a chance to win the match after the fulltime siren but his penalty attempt from 54 meters fell short of the posts. That was the only kickable penalty conceded by the Crusaders after halftime while the Chiefs gave Slade five shots at goals as their discipline frayed.
The Chiefs, who were already hard-hit by injuries, lost No. 8 Michael Squire and scrumhalf Tawera Kerr-Barlow to concussions during an intensely physical match while the Crusaders lost captain Kieran Read, also to a head injury. While the Crusaders showed character in their second-half rally, they were helped by the wayward kicking game and poor tactical approach of the Chiefs.
“It was real Crusader-like from old,” Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder said. “It was about character and belief and it was almost like a mindset shift within the game.
“Defending that line and keeping that discipline under pressure right in front of the posts was a real telling point.”
The Waratahs stayed on track to achieve their goal of a top-two finish as fullback Israel Folau returned from injury to score his ninth try in five games.
“I think we’re on track,” coach Michael Cheika said. “Five wins and three losses, we have a few bonus points and a game away from home in our pocket. We’ve won all our home games.”
Jean Deysel scored his first Super Rugby try to help the Sharks to a win over the Cheetahs in a scrappy match at Durban. The Sharks are at home to the Highlanders next week before facing the Rebels, Brumbies, Crusaders and Blues on the road.
The Hurricanes ran in five second-half tries to beat the Blues 39-20, posting their third-straight win and consigning the Blues to their 12th-straight loss away from home.
The Rebels stopped the Western Force’s record five-match winning streak, helped by a second-half try to captain Scott Higginbotham.