The Queensland Reds leapfrogged the Auckland Blues at the top of the Super Rugby standings after a scintillating 37-31 victory over their New Zealand opponents yesterday.
The Blues, who had won seven successive games and were unbeaten in nine, had fought back from a 24-0 deficit after 30 minutes to get within three points of the lead with 20 minutes remaining, but were unable to close out the match.
The Australian side now have 50 points, one ahead of the Blues, who remain in second place, but could be under pressure from the Canterbury Crusaders, who are on 44 points and play the Cheetahs this weekend.
“We knew the Blues like to come out and play footy, and we have to try and starve them of the [ball] as much as possible, and we did that early in the first half,” Reds captain James Horwill said. “And late in that first half … and in the second half you saw how difficult they are to stop when they put phases together.”
The Reds, playing a high-tempo game, dominating possession and feeding off Blues’ mistakes, had raced to the 24-0 lead with Quade Cooper, hooker Saia Faingaa and blindside flanker Scott Higginbotham all scoring tries.
However, the Blues showed how dangerous they can be with blindside flanker Chris Lowrey and replacement Lachie Munro grabbing tries within three minutes of each other.
Luke McAlister converted to drag his side back into the match, though Cooper added his second penalty right on halftime to give the Reds a 27-14 lead at the break.
The Blues reduced the deficit shortly after the break when Alby Mathewson scored his side’s third try following a burst from flyhalf Stephen Brett and they got back to 27-24 when McAlister slotted a 58th-minute penalty.
However, replacement hooker James Hanson charged down a Brett clearance kick and flopped on the ball shortly after. Cooper restored the 10-point advantage with the conversion, then extended it with 11 minutes remaining with his third penalty.
While the Blues hammered away at the line, silly passes and turnover when the Reds’ defense was tiring cost them any chance of a last-gasp victory, though Rene Ranger’s late try ensured they got two bonus points.
? HIGHLANDERS 13, CANES 6
The Otago Highlanders snapped a three-game losing streak with a 13-6 victory over fellow New Zealanders, the Wellington Hurricanes, in their clash in Invercargill yesterday.
Otago scored the only try of the match, to fullback Ben Smith, while Lima Sopoaga added a conversion and two penalties for the home side whose defense and pressure at the breakdown caused problems for the Hurricanes throughout the game.
Aaron Cruden slotted two penalties for the Hurricanes, who welcomed back Ma’a Nonu and Piri Weepu. Scrumhalf Weepu had broken his leg and dislocated his ankle in October last year.
“It wasn’t pretty, but the conditions were pretty tough,” Highlanders captain Jamie Mackintosh said of the driving rain and chilly temperatures in New Zealand’s southernmost city.
“At times it was a pretty physical battle and like I said, it may not have been pretty to watch, but it was good fun to play … it was bit of an old fashioned battle,” the grizzled loosehead prop added.
The Highlanders had lost their three previous games, all to New Zealand opposition, though the victory moved them to 39 points. While they remain third in the New Zealand conference they will still be in touch with the top six by the end of the weekend.
Hurricanes flyhalf Cruden had opened the scoring with a third-minute penalty and while both sides had opportunities to score more points, their defensive lines held out.
Smith scored the only try of the game in the 36th minute after scrumhalf Jimmy Cowan spotted there were no Hurricanes defenders behind a ruck, so he popped a delicate chip kick into space near the line, which the fullback brilliantly regathered and dived over.
Sopoaga added the conversion and then a penalty right on halftime to give the Highlanders a 10-3 lead at the break.
The flyhalf extended the lead to 10 points with his second penalty just after the break, though Cruden reduced that deficit shortly after with his second penalty.