The Waikato Chiefs jumped to the top of the Super Rugby table, benefitting from a daring plan by the Canterbury Crusaders that brought down the previously unbeaten Western Stormers at the weekend.
The unfashionable Chiefs, largely written off in New Zealand at the start of the season, beat the Cheetahs 39-33 to move two points clear of the Stormers courtesy of bonus points with both sides recording six wins from seven matches.
The Bulls, who have dropped two matches but amassed five bonus points, drew level with the Stormers on 29 points with their 32-18 victory over the Golden Lions whose future in the competition looks tenuous.
Half-way through the season, seven-time champions Crusaders lie seventh, but after a mediocre start they showed ominous signs of returning to their best when disposing of the previously unbeaten Stormers 31-24.
The Crusaders (23 points) are only eight points behind the Chiefs in a packed top of the leaderboard which also includes the Otago Highlanders (26), Wellington Hurricanes (25) and top Australian side ACT Brumbies (24).
Three tries within seven minutes late in the second half enabled the Chiefs to secure a bonus point win over the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein after trailing 20-25 with 18 minutes to play.
The Chiefs only led 10-9 at half-time but seemed set to take control when prop Sona Taumalolo scored the first of his two tries to end a multi-phase attack early in the second half.
The Crusaders made the bold move of shifting All Blacks’ ace Dan Carter to inside centre to reinforce their midfield against the previously unbeaten Stormers and the gamble unearthed a new hero in rookie number 10 Tom Taylor.
Taylor scored all 31 of the Crusaders’ points from a converted try and eight penalties, forcing coach Todd Blackadder to rethink what was supposed to be a one-off positional switch and keep the novice at fly-half.
“Hopefully so. If there are no injuries, next week is likely to stay the same,” Blackadder said.
“Tom took his opportunity and while he is a little green he plays with much maturity.”
The Bulls joined the Stormers at the top of the South African conference when they stormed back to outscore the Lions five tries to two after trailing by 10 points early in the match at Ellis Park.
They succeeded despite a rare off-day for ace goal kicker and Springbok fly-half Morne Steyn, who slotted two conversions and a penalty to raise his season tally past the 100-point mark, but missed five other shots at the posts.
The Brumbies moved to the top of the Australian conference scoring five tries to none in their 37-6 demolition of the Melbourne Rebels on Saturday.
Under new coach Jake White, the young ACT players were far too strong for a disappointing Rebels outfit, who were a shadow of the team that overwhelmed the Auckland Blues the week before.
The Blues nightmare year continued when they suffered their sixth loss in seven games going down 29-23 to the Sharks who are in eighth place on 22 points, one behind the Crusaders.
The New South Wales Waratahs, a point behind the Sharks, posted their third win with a 23-18 victory over the Western Force.
The Highlanders, Hurricanes and defending champions Queensland Reds had byes. — AFP