The New South Wales Waratahs opened up the Super 15 title race with a fighting 28-22 win over leaders the ACT Brumbies in a fierce Australian derby yesterday that may have ramifications for the Wallabies.
The Waratahs fought back from 13-6 down at halftime and overhauled Jake White’s frontrunners with three second-half tries to keep alive their playoff hopes with their third straight win.
However, both sides lost key Wallaby players with injuries, with Waratahs hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau suffering a fractured right forearm and veteran Brumbies flanker George Smith nursing an injured left knee.
It will concern coach Robbie Deans, who is to name his 25-man Wallaby squad today for next month’s three-Test series against the touring British and Irish Lions.
Playmaker Berrick Barnes proved influential coming off the bench at halftime to engineer the Waratahs’ victory with a try and having a hand in another, while kicking two conversions and a penalty.
The win put the Waratahs eight points behind the Brumbies in the Australian conference, with the Brumbies leading the Queensland Reds by only two points in the conference. The Reds were scheduled to face the Central Cheetahs in Bloemfontein later yesterday.
The Brumbies controlled the opening half with tries to skipper Ben Mowen and center Tevita Kuridrani to hold a seven-point lead at the interval, but the Waratahs were a different proposition with Barnes calling the shots in the second half.
Barnes put flanker Michael Hooper over in the corner and then scored himself, before winger Peter Betham beat two tackles to score the clinching try five minutes from fulltime.
It was the Brumbies’ second successive loss after going down 30-23 to the Canterbury Crusaders at home last start, while the Waratahs beat the Canberra-based side for the first time in their last four meetings.
CRUSADERS 23, BLUES 3
AFP, CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand
The Canterbury Crusaders outmuscled the Auckland Blues 23-3 yesterday to leapfrog their archrivals and claim second spot in the New Zealand Super 15 conference.
The Crusaders scored two tries to zero, gaining momentum as the match wore on in front of a sell-out crowd to continue the Blues’ dismal record in Christchurch, where they have not won since 2004.
Over the years, matches between the two best-performing New Zealand teams in Super Rugby history — the Blues holding three titles and the Crusaders a record seven — have developed into fierce derbies between the North and South Islands.
However, both sides this season are trailing defending champions the Waikato Chiefs for the coveted New Zealand conference top spot which guarantees a play-off berth, adding extra edge to the encounter.
Blues coach John Kirwan predicted Test-match intensity before the game and it lived up to the billing in the first half, played at a furious pace as both sides looked to pass the ball in attack and displayed committed defense.
However, the Crusaders stamped their authority on the match in the second half, shrugging off some patchy performances early in their campaign to again show they can lift as the business end of the season approaches.
“Every game is a big one, a must-win,” said halfback Andy Ellis, who celebrated his 100th appearance for the team.
“You’ve got to build momentum going into the end of the season and everyone’s really excited about getting up every week. The boys really fronted up tonight,” he added.
The Blues started brightly, forcing a turnover in the first minute and taking the ball through 14 phases before the Crusaders defenders dragged Frank Halai into touch.
They attacked down the flanks, but it was the Crusaders who drew first blood with a penalty to Tom Taylor after 22 minutes.
Crusaders center Ryan Crotty then charged down a clearing kick from the Blues and darted over the line for a try, with Taylor adding the conversion.
They almost had a second at halftime, but Blues lock Calum Retallick illegally swatted down a pass to Luke Romano as he shaped for a run at the line, earning a yellow card for his efforts and gifting the Crusaders another penalty.
The Crusaders made the most of their one-man advantage after the restart when Owen Franks scored a converted try through a driving maul from the lineout, with the South Islanders adding another penalty shortly after to make it 23-3.
SHARKS 23, FORCE 13
South Africa’s Sharks snapped a five-game losing streak with a deserved 23-13 victory over the Western Force in Perth on Friday to keep their hopes of reaching the Super Rugby playoffs just about alive.
Losing finalists last year, the Durban-based outfit had been forced to deny rumors of divisions within the squad this week after losing the first three matches on their Australasian tour.
However, tries from skipper Keegan Daniel and fullback Riaan Viljoen either side of halftime combined with 13 points from the boot of flyhalf Pat Lambie were enough to see off a willing, but limited Force side.