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Unbeaten Crusaders block out title talk

May 25, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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The unbeaten Canterbury Crusaders have shut out Super Rugby title talk as they grapple with an arduous schedule that has them playing in their fourth country in as many weeks on Saturday.

Crusaders

The competition leaders are in Melbourne to play the struggling Rebels at the end of a month that has taken them from South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji and now Australia.

With an 11-point lead in the tough New Zealand conference, only three games left in the regular season and the impending return from injury of All Black Israel Dagg, the Crusaders have reason to feel confident.

Victory over the Rebels, who have lost all but one game this year, would be win number 13, equalling the record held by the 2002 Crusaders — who featured current coach Scott Robertson.

But despite dominating the competition, the seven-time champions insist they are not yet thinking about the play-offs.

“If we are already in them, tell me where and when. Who are we playing?” assistant coach Brad Mooar said, when it was suggested the Crusaders will cruise into the knock-out phase.

“There is a lot more footy to go yet. We are totally focused on the Rebels this week.”

The Crusaders’ focus may be owing to the fact that they still have to play the Otago Highlanders and the Wellington Hurricanes again, while their nearest rivals for the coveted top spot, the Golden Lions, have an easier run-in.

The top South African side, only three points behind the Crusaders, have the Southern Kings this weekend followed by the Sunwolves and Coastal Sharks.

The Crusaders are on 54 points and the Lions 51 while the Hurricanes and Chiefs, both with a game in hand, remain within striking distance on 43.

In the much-criticised competition format, which guarantees the four conference winners fill the top four places with home advantage in the play-offs, the Western Stormers (30 points) and ACT Brumbies (23) are ranked third and fourth with the Hurricanes and Waikato Chiefs fifth and sixth.

On Friday, the Chiefs travel to the neighbouring Auckland Blues whose loss to the Stormers last week saw their play-off hopes replaced by the role of potential spoilers.

The Blues have not beaten the Chiefs since June 2011, but apart from the notable exception of Jerome Kaino, they will be at near full-strength and with Sonny Bill Williams needing to impress All Blacks selectors before the squad to play the British and Irish Lions next month is finalised.

South Africa’s Golden Lions, with captain Warren Whiteley appointed this week as the new Springboks leader, play the Kings in a rare Sunday match for South African teams.

“It’s not ideal,” said coach Johan Ackermann whose Lions are looking to extend an 11-match winning streak at their Ellis Park fortress in Johannesburg.

“The reality is we’re in an era of professional sport and if the competition dictates that we play on a Sunday then we will do so.”

The Hurricanes, still without Dane Coles who continues to battle concussion symptoms, are in South Africa to play the Northern Bulls.

Africa 1 conference leaders, the Stormers, play the Coastal Sharks while the Brumbies are in Argentina to face the Jaguares.

Crusaders beat ‘Canes in Super Rugby heavyweight fight

May 14, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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The Canterbury Crusaders have strengthened their claims for an eighth Super Rugby crown with a dominating win over defending champions Wellington Hurricanes to stay unbeaten this season.

Crusaders

Crusaders’ forward pack crushed the Hurricanes 20-12 in Christchurch to remain unbeaten after 11 games and open an eight-point lead in the formidable New Zealand conference.

Kiwi teams have dominated this season’s Super Rugby competition ahead of next month’s much-anticipated British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand.

Saturday’s showdown between the two Super Rugby heavyweights was expected to be a try-fest. But at half-time it was locked up at 9-9, with all the points from penalties.

Eventually, the power of the Crusaders’ All Blacks-laden forward pack and the smart direction of centre Ryan Crotty defused the Hurricanes strike force of Beauden and Jordie Barrett and kept them tryless for the first time in three years.

The Crusaders had more than enough power up-front despite being without injured All Blacks Kieran Read and suspended Sam Whitelock.

Scott Barrett (ankle) and Matt Todd (concussion) also had to leave the field during the game.

“It was such a massive effort,” said Crotty, who ended up captaining the side in the absence of Todd.

“We didn’t let them get anything going off set-piece, which was massive, a credit to the tight five.”

South Africa’s Golden Lions won their third Australian tour game with a resilient 13-6 win over the ACT Brumbies in Canberra.

The Lions scored the only try of the dour contest through Springbok Sevens star Kwagga Smith early in the second half after trailing the Australian conference leaders 3-0 at half-time.

It was only the second win for the Johannesburg-based Lions in Canberra, with the result lifting them to a 13-point lead over the Coastal Sharks in the Africa 2 conference.

“It was a grind. Gee, it was a tough battle, the conditions were tough, the ball was slippery and we had to keep it tight, so I am extremely proud of the boys,” Lions skipper Warren Whiteley said.

The Sharks went down 35-32 to the revitalised Southern Kings — who are under threat of the axe when Super Rugby reverts to only 15 teams next year — in Port Elizabeth.

It was the seemingly-doomed Kings’ fourth win of the season and their first over a fellow South African side.

All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa scored a brilliant solo try to give New Zealand’s Otago Highlanders a 17-10 win over the Northern Bulls in Pretoria.

The Highlanders are fourth in the New Zealand conference but in contention for a berth in the post-season eight-team finals with 36 points.

Skipper Samu Kerevi scored a last-minute try to grab a thrilling 29-24 victory for the Queensland Reds over the Rebels in Melbourne.

The Reds scored five tries to two to stay alive for the finals but found it difficult to put away the Rebels, whose place in next year’s competition is still to be determined.

Queensland’s win pushed them above the NSW Waratahs into second place in the Australian conference and three points behind the Brumbies.

All Black prospect Rieko Ioane scored a try double as the Auckland Blues trounced South Africa’s Central Cheetahs 50-32 at Eden Park.

Australia’s Western Force won on the road in Super Rugby for the first time since last May when they upset Argentina’s Jaguares 16-6 in Buenos Aires.

The Waikato Chiefs, Western Stormers, Sunwolves and Waratahs all had byes.

Sonny Bill joins All Blacks injury concerns

May 8, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Sonny Bill Williams has become the latest addition to the All Blacks injury concerns, suffering possible concussion in the Auckland Blues’ Super Rugby win over the NSW Waratahs in Sydney on Saturday.

Sonny Bill Williams

 

Captain Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and Dane Coles head a list of senior players already in a race against time to be match fit before the British and Irish Lions arrive next month.

Double World Cup winning centre Williams left the field for a head injury assessment just before half-time and never returned.

Coach Tana Umaga told the New Zealand Herald he could not confirm the result of the assessment but Williams displayed concussion “symptoms”.

Williams was injured when team mate and prop Pauliasi Manu landed on him and Umaga said the team doctor advised he was not fit to return to the game.

“It will be a wait and see how he responds,” Umaga said.

“It’s just how he pulls up today, how he pulls up tomorrow. He was still having symptoms after the game.

“What’s happened with concussion in the past … sometimes people respond well and can play next week and sometimes they don’t.”

Williams’s injury comes as Charlie Ngatai returned to the Waikato Chiefs after a year sidelined by concussion.

He scored a crucial try in the Chiefs win over the Queensland Reds to join a logjam of fit centres with Test experience.

Also vying for a midfield slot against the Lions are Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, Anton Leinert-Brown, George Moala and Seta Tamanivalu.

All Blacks count injury toll ahead of Lions

April 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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Auckland Blues hardman Jerome Kaino has joined a growing list of All Blacks sidelined by injury as the Super Rugby competition takes its toll ahead of the British and Irish Lions tour.

All-Blacks

Kaino is to undergo surgery on an injured knee on Friday and will be out of action for six weeks, putting him in doubt for the first Lions Test against the All Blacks on June 24.

The unbeaten Canterbury Crusaders head to South Africa for their round 10 match against the Central Cheetahs still without Israel Dagg, who has not been sighted since injuring a knee in their third-round clash with the Queensland Reds.

Dane Coles and Nehe Milner-Skudder from the Wellington Hurricanes, Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues), Elliot Dixon and Lima Sopoaga (Otago Highlanders) and Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato Chiefs) are also sidelined.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen took a philosophical view early in the season, saying the threat of injuries highlighted the need to develop depth.

“We can’t control it, so it’s no good worrying about it,” he said of the impact Super rugbyinjuries would have on the Lions Tests.

“We’ve just got to get on with getting them right and if they’re not going to be right by the time the Lions are due to play us, then we have to make other selections. That’s just part and parcel of the game of rugby,” he said.

All Blacks captain Kieran Read has travelled with the Crusaders to Bloemfontein despite a minor hip complaint and is expected to be fit for Saturday.

The Crusaders are enjoying a hot streak of form and the way they thumped the Western Stormers 57-24 last week underscored their ability to match the physical style of South African rugby then attack with daring offloads.

“We try not to inhibit the guys, and if it is on, to back themselves,” coach Scott Robertson said of the audacious passing.

The Cheetahs are still smarting from the way they yielded a 24-0 lead over the two-time champion Chiefs to lose 41-27 two weeks ago.

Coach Franco Smith has warned his players to shut the Chiefs debacle out of their minds or “we’re going to get a big klap”, he said, using the South African term for smack.

“I don’t think it will be difficult to get the players up again to play an international side, to play an All Black side will be a challenge.”

The Chiefs are not alone in coming from behind to beat the Cheetahs, who have lost six games after leading this season.

The struggling Blues, with only three wins on the board and now without Kaino and Tuipulotu, offer the ACT Brumbies the best chance yet for an Australian side to score a win over a New Zealand franchise this year.

The record so far stands at 14-0 in New Zealand’s favour and includes the Brumbies losing to the Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes.

The Brumbies, like the Blues, have only three wins but while the Blues are bottom of the New Zealand conference, the Brumbies top the Australian sector where the game is struggling.

The NSW Waratahs had their lowest home crowd of all time when only 10,555 fans turned out to see them lose 26-24 last week to the Southern Kings, the worst-performing South African side.

This week they play the Reds in a battle to be the second-best Australian side, with neither team in a position to overtake the Brumbies.

Barrett off the hook over red card

April 11, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

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All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett has escaped further punishment after receiving a red card in the Wellington Hurricanes’ Super Rugby win over NSW Waratahs last week.

Barrett

The current World Rugby player of the year was sent off late in the match after receiving two yellow cards for deliberately knocking down the ball during Waratahs’ attacks.

The SANZAAR judiciary said it took Barrett’s exemplary disciplinary record into account before clearing him to play against the Auckland Blues this weekend.

“The player is therefore free to play and will serve no suspension,” it said in a ruling issued late Monday.

Barrett argued after the match that he was trying to intercept the ball but poor technique meant he knocked it down, rather than taking possession.

Waratahs prop Sekope Kepu was banned for one week after earning a yellow card in the same match for a dangerous tackle.

The judiciary said he received the suspension because it was his third yellow this season for similar offences.

Super stunner as Blues upset champions Highlanders

February 27, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

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Defending champions the Otago Highlanders slumped to a 33-31 loss against the unfancied Auckland Blues as the newly expanded Super Rugby competition opened with a shock result on Friday.

Blues

The Blues, now coached by All Blacks legend Tana Umaga, showed the Highlanders they could not expect to fly under the radar to the title like last year.

In an entertaining match in which the lead changed hands four times, the Highlanders stage a late comeback but lacked the intensity of their New Zealand rivals.

“They played really well and deserved to win, we’ve got to do better,” said captain Ben Smith, whose two-try effort made him the Highlanders’ stand-out player.

This year’s revamped, 18-team competition is expanding its horizons with new sides from Japan and Argentina, but the Blues are intent on turning back the clock to the days when they were a genuine force.

They won the last of their three titles in 2003 but have now sent a message that under Umaga they are a far more potent threat than the side that finished second last in 2015.

“We had a big emphasis on starting well and you can’t get much bigger than beating the defending champions,” said fly-half Ihaia West, who landed seven kicks to play a major part in the win.

“We’ve got a pretty young squad this year, lots of new faces and they gave it their all.”

The Blues showed attacking intent early, moving the ball around and earning a penalty, only for West to send his kick wide.

It fell to Smith to score the first points of the season, with the All Blacks fullback stretching out from a tackle to plant the ball over the tryline.

West made amends for his missed penalty when he set up Melani Nanai’s try in the 17th minute by chipping to Tevita Li, who released the winger for his score.

Powerful young flanker Blake Gibson scored the Blues’ second five-pointer in the 25th minute, bulldozing past four defenders.

Debutant centre Teihorangi Walden hit back immediately for the Highlanders, slipping through a hole in the defence, before Waisake Naholo sent them into the break 24-20 up.

After a helter-skelter first half, the second began as an arm wrestle, with two Blues penalties putting the Aucklanders ahead 26-24 with 20 minutes to go.

Patrick Tuipulotu then sealed it with the Blues’ third try just after Highlander Patrick Osborne was sin binned.

But the final minutes were tense after Smith gave the Highlanders hope with a converted try from a move that began deep within his own half to make it 33-31.

“It’s tough, it’s never not tough,” Smith said as he digested the loss.

Bulls’ play-off hopes gored in Auckland

May 15, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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The Northern Bulls squandered a chance to return to the top of the South African Super 15 conference with a 23-18 upset loss to the Auckland Blues on Friday.

Auckland Blues player George Moala (C) dives over for a try during the Super 15 rugby match between the Auckland Blues and the Northern Bulls at Eden Park in Auckland. AFP

The Bulls dominated territory and possession but could not convert it into points against the unfancied Blues, denting their chances of making the play-offs.

Two tries to centre Jan Serfontein were not enough in a tight match where the lead changed five times but the bulk of chances fell to the South Africans.

“We made too many mistakes,” captain Pierre Spies said, adding that the Bulls were determined to bounce back on a tough road trip featuring the Chiefs, Brumbies and Rebels.

The Eden Park match was a perfect opportunity for the Bulls to leapfrog the inactive Stormers in the South African conference.

But they will be lucky to retain the overall sixth spot by the end of the round, with the Waratahs, Lions and Crusaders all within striking distance.

For the Blues, whose finals hopes are long gone, the win salvaged some pride amid a dismal season and retained their unbeaten record at Eden Park this year.

“We’ve had our backs against the wall for most of the year and to see the boys come out with a performance like this shows we’ve got a real strong backbone,” Keven Mealamu said.

The Bulls exerted immense pressure from the outset through their lineout drive, creating two clear chances in the first five minutes.

The first was disallowed when they were held up over the tryline and the second was ruled out due to obstruction in the lead up.

The home side were lucky to be level pegging at 3-3 before Lolagi Visinia sent them ahead with a spectacular individual try.

The Blues fullback picked up a clearing kick from Handre Pollard near the half-way line and raced past four defenders to score between the posts.

The Bulls hit back through Serfontein after Pollard found a gap and offloaded to the centre as he stormed towards the line at full pace.

Yet the Pretoria-based side went into the break down 16-13, despite enjoying 72 percent of territory and 58 percent of possession in the first 40 minutes.

They were less wasteful after the re-start, breaking down the left wing at lighting speed as the ball passed through six pairs of hands for Serfontein to get his second try.

But they were forced into desperate defending as the Blues regrouped, eventually conceding when George Moala powered over.

Down 23-18 in the final minutes, the Bulls worked the ball into a good attacking position but threw away their momentum, and the game, through a needless penalty.

Crusaders beat Blues despite McCaw’s early exit

April 25, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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The Canterbury Crusaders snapped a two-match losing streak to beat the Auckland Blues 29-15 on Saturday, giving some hope to their faltering Super Rugby campaign.

Halfback Mitchell Drummond scoots to the tryline to score the Crusaders’ opening try against the Blues.

The Crusaders chalked up their fifth win in 10 matches this season and earned a vital bonus point for scoring four tries to move into the top half table despite playing the last quarter of the match without Richie McCaw.

The All Blacks captain was taken from the field for a concussion test after a heavy head knock while tackling Auckland fullback Lolagi Visinia.

The 33-year-old McCaw has struggled to produce his best this season, triggering concerns in rugby-mad New Zealand about his place in the World Cup team.​

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has dismissed suggestions McCaw is losing his edge but his every move is being scrutinised with the World Cup kicking off in less than five months.

The Crusaders were already safely ahead of the Blues when McCaw left the field in Christchurch.

The seven-times Super champions raced to a 14-0 lead after scrumhalf Mitchell Drummond scored in the first minute then loose forward Jordan Taufua went over in the 16th.

The Blues, second-last in the standings with just one victory all season, cut the deficit to 17-10 at halftime when Francis Saili scored.

However, the Crusaders regained control in the second half when Tom Taylor scored two minutes after the restart and Codie Taylor secured the home team’s bonus point with a fourth touchdown.

“We definitely had to show a better performance out there,” Crusaders skipper Kieran Read said.

“It wasn’t perfect but it was certainly a step up from the last two weeks.”

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