The Chiefs’ defense of their Super rugby title became more tenuous when they were trounced 43-15 by the Crusaders in the weekend’s 19th round, allowing South Africa’s Bulls to move atop the table with a cliffhanger win over the Sharks.
After leading the New Zealand conference by as many as 15 points, the Hamilton-based Chiefs found themselves only five points ahead of the Crusaders with one regular season round remaining, in danger of losing their home playoffs advantage.
The Crusaders scored five tries to clinch their own place in the playoffs and to keep alive their bids for a first-place finish in New Zealand and an eighth Super rugby title.
The Pretoria-based Bulls came from behind twice to beat the Sharks 20-19 with a 73rd-minute try to replacement Jano Vermaak.
The three-time champions then watched nervously as Sharks fullback Riaan Viljoen missed a last-minute penalty, which would have snapped their winning streak at eight games and left the Chiefs clinging to the top of the table.
The Cheetahs sealed their place in the playoffs with a 34-13 home win over the Auckland-based Blues, who dropped to ninth place and are the only previous champions to miss out on a top six finish.
Among the former champions, none was more impressive in grasping a playoffs place than the Crusaders, who ran in five tries to two to overwhelm the defending champion Chiefs, ending their six-match winning streak.
All Blacks captain Keiran Read returned to the starting lineup after his absence for Test matches last month and scored a try in each half to turn what had been a modest Crusaders’ lead late in the first half into an unassailable advantage.
Read burst from a scrum to score under the posts in the 40th minute then scored from a damaging break by fullback Israel Dagg in the sixth minute of the second half to put the Crusaders ahead 31-6 and to place the outcome of the match beyond doubt.
The Chiefs beat the Crusaders 28-19 when the teams met at Hamilton in this season’s 15th round and then looked a more complete team, but the Crusaders have been significantly strengthened by the return of their All Blacks and they simply overpowered the Chiefs on Friday to move to fourth place on the championship ladder.
The Bulls were below their best form in their home clash with the Durban-based Sharks, but drew on resources of composure and experience to snatch their ninth straight win with a late try to Vermaak.
The Cheetahs outscored New Zealand’s Blues three tries to one at Free State Stadium to secure a top-six finish and also end the Auckland-based Blues’ chances of making the playoffs.
Blues scrumhalf Jamison Gibson-Park went over inside five minutes for the opening try, but the Cheetahs worked their way back through Philip van der Walt’s score in the 22nd and the boot of flyhalf Riaan Smit, who kicked 19 points.
The Cheetahs led 19-10 at halftime and then pulled away with late scores by replacements Sarel Pretorius and Boom Prinsloo.
In other matches, the Southern Kings were beaten 24-12 by South African compatriots the Stormers.