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Sharks stay atop Super Rugby after round 9

April 12, 2014

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The ACT Brumbies, defending champions the Chiefs and South Africa’s Sharks posted ninth-round wins to stay atop their regional conferences but the hard-fought nature of those victories underlined the closeness of Super Rugby.

The Brumbies beat the Queensland Reds 23-20, the Chiefs beat the Melbourne Rebels 22-16 and the Sharks needed a late try to hold out the Lions 25-12 to retain the top three places on the championship ladder, in which only nine points separate second from 12th place.

The resurgence of seven-time champions the Crusaders, who won in South Africa for the second straight week, and the rise of the previously unrated Western Force who beat the New South Wales Waratahs for a club-record fifth straight win combined to further tighten the standings and give the table an unfamiliar look.

Winger Nick “The Honey Badger” Cummins scored three tries as the Perth-based Force beat the favored Waratahs 28-16 to improve their record to 5-2 and to move up to fourth place. That’s a heady position for a team whose best placing in nine years was seventh in 2007.

The Force led 13-9 at halftime, opened a decisive lead with two second-half tries to Cummins, then held out the Waratahs who closed with a try to Kurtley Beale in the 66th minute. Force captain Matt Hodgson said “it was a game won by our defense” and Waratahs captain Dave Dennis agreed.

“We put them under a lot of pressure,” Dennis said. “We were a bit unlucky but good defense from them kept us out.”

The Waratahs’ attack was reduced in effectiveness by the enforced absence of Wallabies fullback Israel Folau. Folau, who scored eight tries in his first four games this season, was removed from the lineup on Saturday by the Australian Rugby Union which countermanded the Waratahs’ medical assessment that he was ready to return from a throat injury.

Though Folau received a clearance from a specialist in Perth this week and from New South Wales team doctor Sharron Flahive, the ARU said its medical advice was that Folau was not fit to play.

“I’ve spoken to Sharron and the specialist that I’ve seen here in Perth,” Folau said. “They said that I was good to go, with the risk that I was well aware of, but the ARU have stepped in and I’m very disappointed.”

The Crusaders also benefited from a winger’s hat trick as they beat the Cheetahs 52-31 in Bloemfontein for their first bonus-point win. Fiji winger Nemani Nadolo scored three of the Crusaders’ six tries in a see-sawing match in which eight tries were scored after halftime.

The Crusaders led 19-10 at the break but fell behind 31-19 when the Cheetahs scored three tries in a 10-minute burst. The home side seemed spent after that effort and the Crusaders reclaimed the lead and the match, scoring three tries in the last 17 minutes.

Coach Todd Blackadder said their two wins in South Africa, which lifted them to seventh place with a 4-3 record, put their campaign back on track. He said the Crusaders “really worked hard on being a team, stripped back and just prioritized what we need to do to win these games and got rid of any clutter.”

The Brumbies resisted a strong finish from the Reds to claim their sixth win of the season and to remain second overall, two points behind the Sharks. Queensland’s fifth loss of the season dropped them to 11th place and jeopardized their bid to reclaim the Super Rugby title they held in 2011.

“We knocked on, not taking kicks, turnovers of kicks, simple things,” Reds captain James Horwill said. “The second half was better but we couldn’t convert our chances.”

A late try to Lwazi Mvovo clinched the Sharks’ 25-12 win over the Lions in Johannesburg, the first away win of the season for the Durban-based championship leaders.

Though the Sharks had substantial advantages of territory and possession they didn’t lead by more than six points until Mvovo scored in the 67th minute.

“We had to get someone like Lwazi to break the deadlock,” Sharks captain Bismarck du Plessis said. “You have to start well if you want to win this competition. But the most important thing is the last five games. We still have to go and travel.”