South Africa’s Bulls cemented their local dominance in Super rugby when they beat their closest rivals, the Cheetahs, 30-23 during the weekend’s 16th round.
The win on the Cheetah’s home ground at Bloemfontein lifted the Pretoria-based Bulls eight points clear in the South African conference as New Zealand and South African teams enter a three-week break for this month’s Test matches.
The Bulls moved into second place overall and closer to an automatic semi-final berth when they held on in a high quality match. Although the Pretoria team was in control throughout the match and never trailed, late tries by Riaan Smit and substitute Trevor Nyakane secured a losing bonus point for the Cheetahs.
In the New Zealand conference, the Chiefs had a weekend bye and stayed 10 points clear of the Christchurch-based Crusaders, who edged the New South Wales Waratahs 23-22.
The Australian conference remained more competitive as the ACT Brumbies beat the Wellington-based Hurricanes 30-23 to stay six points ahead of the Queensland Reds.
Queensland’s injury-plagued backrower Scott Higginbotham is in doubt for Australia’s upcoming test series against the British and Irish Lions after suffering a dislocated shoulder in a collision.
“It’s a little bit painful at the moment,” Higginbotham said. “I’ll get scans tonight and push on. Hopefully I’ll be right to train and push on for selection for the Lions.”
The Brumbies may be just one win away from securing their first Super Rugby semi-final since 2004 after their 30-23 home win over the Hurricanes.
The Brumbies are still well-placed to lead the tournament into its mid-season break, which the Australian teams will join after next weekend’s shortened round. If they can beat Melbourne, they will vault the defending champion Chiefs into overall first place, though they will remain under pressure in Australia from the Reds, who are guaranteed four points from a 17th-round bye.
New South Wales led Christchurch 22-10 after 44 minutes, with tries to wingers Cam Crawford and Peter Betham and flyhalf Bernard Foley, and seemed headed for a comfortable win.
However, when coach Michael Cheika subbed Foley and scrumhalf Brendan McKibbin in the 57th minute, the Waratahs lost some of their structure. Crusaders flyhalf Dan Carter had a mediocre game, but slotted five goals from six attempts and when he landed a penalty in the 73rd minute, the hosts went ahead 23-22 for their first lead of the game.
Waratahs replacement Berrick Barnes then missed a handy penalty in the last minute to cost his team a rare win at the Crusaders’ home ground.
Crusaders lock Dominic Bird suffered a shoulder injury that likely cost him an All Blacks debut against France next weekend. The 22-year-old Bird was expected to be named on the bench for the first test but he is now sidelined for at least six weeks.
In other matches, the Stormers beat the Southern Kings 19-11 in a rain-soaked match at Cape Town.