Wellington, New Zealand – The Sharks posted their third win from three games to go to first place and the Hurricanes had their third straight loss to stay last, measuring the gap between the haves and have-nots in Super Rugby after the weekend's fourth round.
The Durban-based Sharks beat the Johannesburg-based Lions 37-23 with a four-try bonus point to reclaim their place atop the championship table as the first team to win three consecutive matches. They lead the New South Wales Waratahs and defending champions the Chiefs, who both have two wins from two matches and shared fourth-round byes.
The Hurricanes were beaten 29-21 by the ACT Brumbies and have only one bonus point to show for their first three matches as they rest at the foot of the table.
The Pretoria-based Bulls beat the Auckland-based Blues 38-22 and have two wins and 10 points from four matches. The Brumbies, after their win over the Hurricanes, and the Queensland Reds, who beat the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs 43-33, both have two wins from three matches, contributing to a tight Australian conference in which the top three teams are separated by one point.
Wallabies flyhalf Quade Cooper scored 18 points for the Reds to tally 632 points in Super Rugby and pass Elton Flatley's club record by three.
The fourth round was the first this season to include a majority of matches between teams from rival conferences. The Sharks, who beat the Lions, and the Perth-based Western Force, who beat the Melbourne Rebels 32-7, both won within their regions while, of the other matches, two were won by Australian sides and one each by teams from South Africa and New Zealand.
The seven-time champion Crusaders needed a dubious late penalty to beat the Cape Town-based Stormers 14-13 and to retain a 10-year unbeaten record at home against overseas teams.
The Brumbies and Reds showed the strength of the Australian conference and the Sharks and Bulls represented South Africa well. But of the three New Zealand teams in action in the fourth round, the Crusaders - by a point - were the only winners and the unbeaten Chiefs are the only New Zealand side with a positive record. They are 2-0, the Dunedin-based Highlanders are 1-1, the Blues and Crusaders are 1-2 and the Hurricanes 0-3.
The central feature of the performance of New Zealand teams this season has been the poor quality of coaching and preparation. The Hurricanes and Crusaders showed no signs of a well-developed gameplan, were handicapped by a lack of fundamental skills and paid for elementary selection errors.
The Blues became the latest team to founder in Pretoria after making the error of underestimating the Bulls' ability to play a fast-paced game. The Auckland-based team's conviction that the Bulls would wilt when faced with an opponent which played at speed and with width was shown to be misplaced as they were outscored four tries to two.
The Crusaders' win has done little to alleviate pressure on its coach, Todd Blackadder, who has failed to add to the team's seven championship titles in his six years in charge. At the same time, the Hurricanes' third defeat of the season and their eighth in succession has substantially increased pressure on coach Mark Hammett, who has failed to guide them to the playoffs in three years.
After such a poor start to the season, the Hurricanes' playoff hopes are already severely damaged and their poor form has been exacerbated by Hammett's eccentric selections. The former All Blacks hooker refused to bow to pressure to start talented young flanker Ardie Savea on Saturday and Savea was clearly the Hurricanes' best player when he finally came off the bench.
“We can be a good side but I don't want it to be too late in the season before we start showing that,” Hurricanes captain Conrad Smith said. The Wellington-based team's home match next week against the Cheetahs has become critical as they try to turn around a losing season.
Blackadder will face increased scrutiny after the Crusaders' latest sluggish and shapeless performance. Their attack again had no edge and they were lucky to win, helped in large part when a try to Stormers captain Jean de Villiers was disallowed.
“At the moment it looks like we're thinking too much rather than having a go,” Blackadder said of his dysfuntional attack. “It's good to get some numbers on the board. This competition is incredibly tough.” – Sapa-AP