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The Northern Bulls remained unbeaten to stretch their series lead this weekend, but Super 14 strugglers Western Force did not go down without a fight.
The Pretoria-based Bulls jumped to a five-point lead after seven rounds in the southern hemisphere tournament with a 28-15 victory over the winless Force in Perth on Saturday.
It was the first match of the Bulls’ four-match Australasian tour and the defending champions were made to fight all the way against the Force.
Fellow South Africans Western Stormers and seven-time Super rugby champions Canterbury Crusaders had weekend byes and hold on to their second and third positions in the standings with seven rounds left to the play-offs.
The NSW Waratahs consolidated fourth spot, level on points with the Stormers and Crusaders, but they needed a late 90-metre intercept try from Wallaby winger Lachie Turner to douse the unpredictable Auckland Blues 39-32 in Sydney.
Two more Australian sides, ACT Brumbies and Queensland Reds, kept within touching distance of the top four with weekend victories.
The Brumbies consigned last season’s finalists Waikato Chiefs to their third straight defeat with a 30-23 win at home on Friday, while the Reds registered a convincing 31-10 win over the Central Cheetahs in Bloemfontein.
New Zealand’s Wellington Hurricanes slumped to eighth spot after their fourth straight defeat, this time going down 29-26 to the Coastal Sharks at home after a 50-metre penalty by Ruan Pienaar on full-time.
In the weekend’s other match, Otago Highlanders downed fellow cellar dwellers the Golden Lions 39-29 in Dunedin.
In Perth, few pundits gave the injury-ravaged Force any hope against the competition frontrunners, but the home side showed great resolve and led 15-10 going into the last 25 minutes after five penalties from teenager James O’Connor.
However, the Bulls steadied to make it six wins this season with Morne Steyn, who scored 18 points, guiding the Bulls home.
“We gave away too many penalties in the first half,” Bulls’ captain Victor Matfield said. “In the second half the discipline was good.”
The Waratahs trailed until winger Turner pounced on a runaway 90-metre intercept try nine minutes from fulltime to claim a bonus-point victory.
The Waratahs had led 21-7 after 19 minutes before the unshackled Blues hit back to lead 32-29 with almost 30 minutes remaining.
Julian Huxley made a triumphant return from brain surgery as the Brumbies claimed their fifth win of the season at the expense of the Chiefs.
Huxley, playing his first Super match since being diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2008, came on as a first-half replacement to a standing ovation.
Reds scrumhalf and captain Will Genia inspired his team to victory over the Cheetahs as he dictated play with Wallaby flyhalf Quade Cooper.
The Reds made far fewer errors than the home side, who were severely disrupted by injuries and the late withdrawal of captain and flanker Juan Smith because of his father’s illness.
Pienaar’s last-gasp penalty secured back-to-back victories for the Sharks after they downed the Highlanders in Dunedin the previous week.
The Hurricanes, back home from a winless South Africa trek, slumped in despair as Pienaar’s match-deciding kick sentenced them to a fourth consecutive defeat after winning their first three games.
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