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Blues stay on top, Crusaders shift to second
NZPA
April 1, 2007

Normal transmission resumed for the competition heavyweights in this weekend's Super 14, while two Australian rugby teams also improved their fortunes.

The Blues and Crusaders maintained their form, although in contrasting fashion, with wins over the Chiefs 18-11 and Waratahs 34-33 to cement first and second place respectively.

The Hurricanes managed to end a four-match losing streak with an uninspiring 17-9 win against the Bulls while the Highlanders threw stylish rugby out the window to beat the Cheetahs 21-17.

The weekend's action ended the Chiefs' run of two wins as they crashed to their fifth defeat to languish in 11th place, while South Africa's grip over the top-four has steadily been peeled away with the Sharks just clinging on to fourth place.

It's a far cry from a few weeks ago when South Africa had three teams in semifinals contention.

But their loss is Australia's gain, with the Force looking solid in third spot after beating the Sharks 22-12 and the Brumbies looming in fifth with three home games on the horizon.

They beat the Lions 14-9 in Johannesburg today.

John Mitchell's Force continue to impress, and next Saturday's visit to Christchurch to take on the Crusaders will arguably be the match of the round.

Thankfully for the competition's sake, the Crusaders' victory in Sydney last night was a vital tonic with the competition limping through the first nine rounds.

There were 10 tries, action right across the field, and drama in the closing stages when Peter Hewat botched an easy conversion which which ultimately cost the Waratahs victory.

B oth teams traded blows and the Waratahs piled on 20 unanswered points either side of halftime in a stirring rally.

Rico Gear starred for the Crusaders by bagging two tries, but it appeared the Waratahs would end their six-match losing streak when replacement hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau scored next to the goalposts in the 70th minute.

The usually reliable Hewat stepped up and quickly took the conversion which hit the left-hand upright.

The Crusaders still deserved victory, scoring six tries to four, but the margin would have been more comfortable had first five-eighth Stephen Brett, who replaced an injured Dan Carter, brought along his kicking boots.

Worryingly for the Crusaders, All Blacks lock Chris Jack left the field midway through the first half with a leg injury.

Converted first-five eighth Piri Weepu had no problems with his goalkicking as the All Blacks halfback slotted four penalties and triggered the Hurricanes' only try at Westpac Stadium yesterday.

Following four successive defeats, last year's finalists needed the four points to keep their slim playoffs hopes alive.

Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper gambled that Weepu's shift to No 10 would release a backline that's been dormant all season.

Weepu repaid the faith in the 63rd minute when he regathered his own grubber kick, and flicked a neat pass to fullback Corey Jane, who weaved the Bulls defence inside out to put wing Hosea Gear over in the corner.

The Hurricanes are 10th and on form will struggle to extend their season into the playoffs.

Promisingly for Cooper, All Blacks loose forwards Rodney So'oialo and Jerry Collins were prominent throughout the match.

Blues coach David Nucifora, whose team extended their lead atop the standings, is still yet to start a match with his quota of reconditioned internationals.

That may change after hooker Keven Mealamu and lock Ali Williams starred after being introduced for the second half at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton yesterday.

The Blues had struggled to quell a combative Chiefs side, and only took the lead in the 57th minute.

The injection of Mealamu and Williams added much needed starch to a Blues collar which had earlier appeared somewhat flimsy.

Mealamu carried the Blues into a 13-11 lead 17 minutes into the second half when he was driven over from a lineout and he then made a crucial half break four minutes later to lay on a try for right wing Doug Howlett.

It was a special moment for Howlett, representing his record 58th try in 99 Super matches.

The Highlanders are the next best positioned New Zealand team in eighth on 20 points.

Highlanders coach Greg Cooper started the All Blacks duo of hooker Anton Oliver and prop Carl Hayman, but it was halfback Jimmy Cowan, who shone with an all round display in attack and defence.

Cowan was in the thick of everything, helping to set up one try and pulling off a trysaving tackle on Cheetahs substitute Phillip Burger late in the second half.

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