Plenty of un-Australian activity in the last full Round before the June International window plays havoc with the schedule.
BLUES 16-16 CHIEFS
A crucial match for both sides – the Blues desperate to keep their faint playoff hopes alive, the Chiefs seeking to improve their chances of avoiding a playoff in South Africa – ended in disappointment for both at Eden Park.
The game kicked off in cool but clear conditions and initially there was plenty of ball-in-hand attacking intent shown, but then the rain came and as conditions deteriorated so too did the handling, and both teams adopted a more territory-based, forward-oriented style.
Damian McKenzie got the Chiefs on the board after six minutes with a 40m penalty, Blues 5/8 Piers Francis replying in kind after 11 minutes then missing one after 17 minutes.
A rare Blues foray into the Chiefs 22 on the half hour mark saw wing Reiko Ioane latch onto a sweet short ball from his halfback Augustine Pulu to score near the posts, Francis converting for 10-3. It could easily have been 10-3 the other way, though, as minutes earlier Chiefs wing James Lowe almost pulled off a textbook intercept but couldn’t control the ball.
Francis put the Blues further ahead with another penalty and with half time all but up it looked like the Chiefs would trail by 10 going into the sheds. The Blues, however, botched the restart and gifted possession back, allowing Damian McKenzie to scythe through a gap between two forwards and score in the corner.
Half time: Blues 13-8 Chiefs
An early Francis penalty took the Blues out to 16-8, Aaron Cruden reducing the deficit back to five at 53 minutes after the Chiefs pack won a scrum penalty. The scrum battle was intense all night and there was plenty of trash talk, resulting in some handbags stuff as players took exception.
More McKenzie magic levelled the scores after 68 minutes, his cross kick regathered by centre Johnny Faauli who outpaced the defence to crash over in the corner. There was some good fortune in the buildup, James Lowe able to regain possession after having his kick charged down.
With 12 minutes remaining all it needed was one score from either side to decide the outcome. Two chances fell the Blues’ way but they blew both. First Francis missed a handy penalty then, Francis having positioned himself in the pocket for an apparent drop-goal attempt, they instead flung the ball wide to replacement wing TJ Faiane who spilled it.
For The Blues: Try: R Ioane, Con: Francis, Pens: Francis 3
For The Chiefs: Tries: McKenzie, Faauli, Pens: McKenzie, Cruden
Cheetahs 47-7 Sunwolves
After nine losses on the trot the Cheetahs will have been relieved to overpower their hosts, who were again dominated up front and tired badly in the final 20 minutes. Three of the Cheetahs’ seven tries were scored in that time.
For the Sunwolves this was the sixth consecutive match in which they’ve conceded 40-plus points. This will no doubt have some Australian and South African fans again questioning their continued presence in the competition while their teams face being cut.
Hurricanes 34-20 Bulls
The Hurricanes have consolidated their hold on the top Australasian qualifying wildcard with an entertaining bonus point victory in Pretoria. A superb Jordie Barrett try after just two minutes looked ominous for the Bulls but they competed strongly throughout without ever looking likely to cause an upset.
The defending champions now have a three-point lead over the Highlanders and Chiefs, and a game in hand over the former, with the runner-up in the New Zealand Conference likely to play the winner of the Australian Conference in the quarter finals.
Sharks 22-10 Stormers
A great Sharks defensive effort proved too much for the Stormers who again showed plenty of enterprise. The Sharks scored twice in the first half to lead 15-0 at the break, and once in the second after the visitors had closed the gap to just five points and looked to be gaining the ascendency.
The result has no real bearing on the South African conferences, the Stormers being well clear in Africa 1 and the Sharks second but well behind in Africa 2 to hold the African playoff wildcard.
Lions 54-10 Kings
The Lions have guaranteed themselves a top-two finish with a 54-10 thrashing of the Kings in Johannesburg. Up 12-3 after half an hour they had hooker Robbie Coetzee red carded for kneeing a player in the head but it had no ill-effect as they ran in six further tries.
The win means the Lions will top the African Group and puts them just three points behind the table-topping Crusaders with their last two opponents the Sunwolves and Sharks (the Crusaders last two being the Highlanders and Hurricanes).
Just the one un-Australian match this week, but what a match: Crusaders v Highlanders at AAMI Park, Christchurch, and it’s an afternoon game with kickoff at 12:35 AEST. Must-watch TV!