The Canterbury Crusaders showed their championship qualities to come from behind and beat a brave Queensland Reds 27-21 in their Super 14 clash yesterday.
The Crusaders opened the scoring in the eighth minute with a Kade Poki try that appeared to set the scene for the easy away victory many were expecting.
However, tries from Reds captain James Horwill and Peter Hynes gave the Reds a 14-8 lead at the break.
When Quade Cooper brushed past Crusaders captain Richie McCaw and Leon MacDonald to score a converted try in the 51st minute, the Reds led 21-8 and the home crowd was sensing an incredible upset.
But the Crusaders scored the last three tries of the match in the final 15 minutes to snatch a win that guaranteed them top spot going into the semi-finals.
Dan Carter came on after half-time to nail a tough conversion that snatched the lead in the 76th minute.
He then scored the match-winning try a minute later, diving over in the corner after snatching the rebound from an Ali Williams pass.
The Reds were left rueing two yellow cards late in the game, leaving them down to 13 men at one stage as they tried desperately to cling to the lead.
The home side were 21-8 up when Digby Ioane was sent off for a bad tackle in the 65th minute, and Ben Lucas joined him in the sin bin a few minutes later.
Kieran Read burrowed over for the Crusaders just after Ioane left the field to get his side back into the match and a Williams try set the scene for Carter’s crucial conversion that put his side up 22-21 in the 75th minute.
The Crusaders totally dominated possession and territory throughout, but outstanding defense from the Reds carried them to the brink of a huge upset.
Elsewhere, fullback Nick Evans scored two tries among 23 points as the Auckland Blues beat the Otago Highlanders 40-15 yesterday.
Evans scored Auckland’s first 21 points in a 62-minute cameo which marked his first return appearance on his former home ground, Carisbrook.
The versatile back, who kicked three penalties and two conversions to complement his two first-half tries, played for the Highlanders before rejoining the Blues this year after a three-year absence.
Evans’ performance helped the Blues to a 26-3 half-time lead, securing the win they needed to keep their playoffs hopes alive and wingers Rudi Wulf and Anthony Tuitivake added tries which sealed a vital four-try bonus point.
The five points lifted Auckland from eighth to fourth place on the Super 14 ladder pending the outcome of other matches in the 13th of 14 regular-season rounds.
The Blues needed a bold effort yesterday to press their semi-final claims and they produced that in the first half, running the ball at an unsteady Highlanders defense.
They edged ahead 9-0 with three Evans penalties but had to wait until the 25th minute for the fullback’s first try as he outpaced the defense pursuing his own kick.
He touched down again in the 32nd by taking advantage of space created by Tony Woodcock and John Afoa.
Wulf added Auckland’s third try three minutes before half-time but they had to wait until the 22nd minute of the second half before Tuitivake scored the fourth. Evans converted the try.
Otago hit back with second-half tries to Aaron Bancroft and Adam Thompson, closing to 26-15 before Auckland pulled away, with Tuitivake’s try and another to speedster David Smith.