The Coastal Sharks opened a six-point lead at the top of the Super Rugby log with a South African derby win, while champions the Waikato Chiefs lost narrowly at home this weekend.
The Sharks, seeking a first southern hemisphere championship title under former World Cup-winning coach Jake White, downed the Central Cheetahs 19-8 in Durban to move to 31 points.
Australia’s ACT Brumbies remain in second place on 25 points despite their weekend bye, ahead on points differential over the Chiefs.
Back-to-back champions the Chiefs were nudged out 18-17 by the Canterbury Crusaders in a New Zealand cliffhanger in Hamilton.
The New South Wales Waratahs leapfrogged the Western Force to fourth in the standings following a hard-fought 19-12 win over the Northern Bulls in Sydney.
The Force’s five-match winning run came to an end following a 22-16 defeat to the Rebels in Melbourne.
The Wellington Hurricanes improved to seventh just outside the play-off places with a 39-20 win over the Auckland Blues in Wellington.
In the weekend’s other game, the Western Stormers scored two tries with 14 men to defeat the Golden Lions 18-3 in Cape Town and end a five-match losing streak.
In Durban, flanker Jean Deysel scored his first Super Rugby try to clinch a scrappy South African derby with the Cheetahs.
The table-toppers were four points ahead with nine minutes left when Deysel touched down at a ruck and Francois Steyn converted to seal the victory.
The home side got on top territorially in the second half with their scrum working effectively and Steyn made the Cheetahs pay for conceding penalties.
Fullback Jason Woodward scored 17 points from five penalties and a conversion as the Rebels held on to nudge out the Force, after both teams scored a try each in a dour contest.
In Wellington, the Hurricanes trailed 13-17 at halftime, but they took control in the opening 10 minutes of the second half with a converted try, down to 14 men with hooker Dane Coles in the sin bin.
It set up the Hurricanes’ third consecutive win and kept them in touch with the competition leaders after turning around a disastrous start to the year, in which they won only one of their first five outings.
The Stormers, showing a greater appetite for keeping the ball in hand than in previous games, built an 18-point first-half lead and restricted the Lions to just three points after the break in their match at Newlands.