Blues 16-34 Highlanders
The Highlanders were at their patient and composed best as they racked up a fourth consecutive win over the Blues who for their part had plenty of ball but seemed unable to do much with it.
The Highlanders were into their work early, flanker Dillon Hunt scoring inside a minute after charging down 5/8 Bryn Gatland’s attempted clearance from a poor kickoff reception. Fellow flanker Shannon Frizell then scored the first of his three tries for the night, a pick-and-go effort in the corner from a penalty lneout move. Five minutes in it was 12-0.
To their credit the Blues didn’t fold and actually dominated proceedings for the next 20 minutes. Halfback Jonathan Ruru darted over from a ruck and Gatland kicked two penalties to have them trailing just 11-12. With five minutes left in the half, however, centre Rob Thompson and No. 8 Luke Whitelock combined to present Frizell with a second try. A late penalty gave the Highlanders a 20-11 lead at the break.
Less than five minutes after the restart Frizell and wing Tevita Li, who had a busy night against his former team, combined well, Frizell making the final offload for halfback Kane Hammington to score. Frizell then completed his hat-trick as the hour mark approached, fullback Ben and replacement halfback Aaron Smith prominent in the buildup.
The Blues did get a 70th-minute try to replacement back Tumua Manu, but the damage had well and truly been done and the Highlanders had little difficulty in closing the game out.
The Blues are now winless against New Zealand opposition since Round 1 in 2016 (Tana Umaga’s first match as coach), losing 14 derbies and drawing one in that time.
The Highlanders sit fourth in the New Zealand Conference and sixth overall but have a game in hand over the third-and-fifth placed Chiefs.
Crusaders 33-11 Sunwolves
The Crusaders started and finished strongly but were made to look average for long periods by the Sunwolves who fully exploited the at times terrible conditions.
Veteran 5/8 Mike Delany grabbed the opening try with a jinking run, stand-in skipper Matt Todd the second from a lineout drive and with under ten minutes on the clock the Crusaders lead 14-0. Centre Michael Little opened the Sunwolves account 16 minutes in while the Crusaders were down to 14, hooker Ben Funnell receiving treatment for a serious-looking knee injury, and conceding multiple penalty advantages.
Then it started to rain, the rain quickly turned to hail, a thunder storm briefly threatening to suspend play due to lightning-strike concerns, and it was the Sunwolves who adapted quicker and better. While the Crusaders stuck to their high tempo ball movement game plan the Sunwolves simply put it in the air, chased hard, and made most of their tackles.
Down 5-14 at the break, the Sunwolves had the better of the early second half. Their 5/8 Hayden Parker nailed penalties in the 45th and 55th minutes to reduce the deficit to three, and suddenly a shock result looked at least possible.
Centre Ryan Crotty gave his side some breathing space with a classic reverse-angle run that saw him go over adjacent to the posts. Delany extended the lead to ten, then minutes later midfielder Tm Bateman and wing Manasa Mataele combined to put the match beyond doubt, the latter burning off several defenders on a 30-metre dash to the line after a brilliant offload from Bateman.
Replacement halfback Jack Stratton put the icing on the cake with a bonus point try inside the last ten minutes, replacement 5/8 Mitch Hunt adding the extras.
The win takes the Crusaders back to the top of the New Zealand Conference and second overall, but they’ve played one more game than the Hurricanes who had the bye this week and are now second in the Conference and fourth overall.
Sharks 24-17 Stormers
The Sharks overcame the Stormers in what was very much a game of two halves with a thrilling second half after an error-ridden first.
Flyhalf Robert du Preez opened the scoring for the Sharks with a penalty, the only other scoring action in the half being a late try to Stormers wing Raymond Rhule after flanker Siya Kolisi broke out from his 22 and gave a skilful offload.
Down 3-7 the Sharks were first to score in the second half, centre Lukhanyo Am finishing off a break from wing Makazole Mapimpi to grab the lead. A Stormers penalty and a try to hooker Ramone Samuels had them 17-10 up.
The Sharks levelled up through the du Preez brothers, flanker Jean-Luc scoring while the Stormers had a man in the bin and Robert adding the extras. Sharks replacements Akker van der Merwe and Hyron Andrews then set up their prop Thomas du Toit for the match-winner.
The Sharks and Stormers are now third and fourth, respectively, in the South African Conference and realistically neither are likely to make the playoffs.
The top eight currently looks like this:
1. Lions 30 points (played 9)
2. Crusaders 29 (8)
3. Waratahs 24 (8)
4. Hurricanes 27 (7)
5. Chiefs 26 (8)
6. Highlanders 24 (7)
7. Rebels 21 (8)
8. Bulls 19 (8)
If the teams were to finish in that order, the quarter-finals would be:
Lions v Bulls
Crusaders v Rebels
Waratahs v Highlanders
Hurricanes v Chiefs
This week’s matches (times are AEST):
Hurricanes v Sunwolves 17:35 Friday
Blues v Jaguares 17:35 Saturday
Bulls v Highlanders 1:15 Sunday