All Blacks flyhalf Carlos Spencer yesterday produced a typical display of his flamboyant attacking skills to lead the Super 12 champion Auckland Blues to a 56-19 win over South Africa's Northern Bulls.
Spencer scored one try and set up two others and constantly bamboozled the Bulls defensive lines with his sleight of hand and kicking game.
The Blues had a sluggish start in defending their title, particularly after losing Spencer with a broken jaw for three weeks, though the 28-year-old returned last week in the 22-17 win over the Waratahs and was back to his best on Friday.
The Blues went into halftime leading 20-7 courtesy of tries from David Gibson, Ali Williams and Joe Rokocoko and a penalty and a conversion from Spencer. Ettienne Botha scored for the Bulls while Derick Hougaard added a conversion.
The Blues then sealed the match in the first 20 minutes of the second half, scoring a further five tries to Spencer, Sam Tuitupou (two), Ben Atiga and Derren Witcome.
The Bulls then fought back with tries to number eight Jacques Cronje and skipper Victor Matfield and were pushing desperately for the bonus point fourth try when play broke down and the Blues stormed back down field.
Spencer then kicked perfectly with the outside of his right foot for Rokocoko to win the race in goal and dot down for his second try.
BRUMBIES 50, HIGHLANDERS 18
Australia's ACT Brumbies ended a turbulent week by thrashing New Zealand's Otago Highlanders 50-18 yesterday to extend their lead in the Super 12 standings.
The Brumbies showed no signs of distraction from the midweek announcement their coach David Nucifora would be sacked at the end of the season as they demolished the Highlanders seven tries to two in a free-flowing match at Canberra Stadium.
Hooker Jeremy Paul scored two tries for the Brumbies while lock Mark Chisolm, captain Stirling Mortlock, number eight Scott Fava, flyhalf Stephen Larkham and fullback Joe Roff also crossed. Roff also kicked six conversions and a penalty for a personal tally of 20 points.
Otago fullback Nick Evans opened the scoring in the fifth minute with a 90m intercept try and hooker Anton Oliver scored a consolation try midway through the second half but the Highlanders rarely threatened again.
The result gave the Brumbies an 11-point lead at the top of the standings with the eighth week of matches still incomplete.
The only non-New Zealand team to win the southern hemisphere's regional championship, the Brumbies are almost certain of a place in this year's playoffs while the Highlanders are struggling to make the semi-finals.
Four-time Super 12 champions Canterbury Crusaders, into second spot after a commanding win over the Brumbies last weekend, begin their South African leg of matches with a showdown today with fourth-placed Coastal Sharks in Durban.
The Sharks have showed they are a realistic title contender with two fighting victories over the Highlanders and Wellington Hurricanes in New Zealand and they have all their remaining five matches at home.
Signs are encouraging for another South African outfit, the third-placed Western Stormers, who embark on their Australasian tour with a match today against the injury-ravaged Queensland Reds in Brisbane.
The 11th-placed Reds are all but out of finals' contention.