By STEVE McMORRAN
2014-03-30 06:22 AM
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) -- A series of surprise results compacted the standings in the Super Rugby tournament after the weekend's seventh round and shone a harsh light on the form of teams in the Australian and New Zealand conferences.
South Africa's Sharks beat the New South Wales Waratahs 32-10 to move six points clear at the top of the table and, in a stroke, dismantled a growing belief the Waratahs are serious title challengers.
While the Waratahs were without fullback Israel Folau, the season's leading try-scorer with eight from four games, their second half capitulation revealed a collection of systemic flaws.
Behind the Sharks, teams ranked from second to 10th place on the championships table are separated by only five points, making the tournament one of the tightest in recent years.
The Sharks owed their increased lead at the top of the table to the second-placed ACT Brumbies' 32-24 loss to the Melbourne Rebels and to the Hamilton-based Chiefs' 34-34 draw with the Bulls in Pretoria.
Within the South African conference, the Sharks hold a seven-point lead over the Johannesburg-based Lions and the Bulls who both have 16 competition points but, in a measure of the tournament's closeness, are separated by three places on the overall table.
Four teams -- the Lions, Waratahs, Blues and Bulls -- have 16 points and occupy fourth to seventh places, divided only by points differential.
The Brumbies still lead the Australian conference by a point from the Waratahs and the Chiefs remain atop the New Zealand conference, a point ahead of the Blues who beat the Dunedin-based Highlanders 30-12.
After seven rounds, South African teams occupy first, fourth, seventh, 14th (Stormers) and 15th (Cheetahs) places on the championships table; Australian teams are second, fifth, eighth (Western Force), ninth (Queensland Reds) and 12th (Rebels); New Zealand sides are third, sixth, 10th (Hurricanes), 11th (Highlanders) and 13th (Crusaders).
South Africa has three teams in the top half of the table and New Zealand and Australia two each. But that is offset by the fact South African teams also occupy to bottom two places and those teams, the Stormers and Cheetahs, are fast-fading from playoffs contention.
So too, to the surprise of most commentators, are the seven-time champion Crusaders whose 29-26 loss to the Hurricanes on Friday left them with only two wins from five matches and with nine chanpionship points in 13th place. The Crusaders' only wins this season have come over the Cheetahs and Melbourne Rebels and they have yet to beat another New Zealand team.
Matches between the Brumbies and Rebels and the Crusaders and Hurricanes -- in which the Brumbies and Crusaders, both former champions, started as favorites -- revealed something of the strengths of the Australian and New Zealand conferences.
The New Zealand match was a thriller -- both teams came from behind twice before the Hurricanes clinched their win with a brilliant, 73rd-minute try to winger Alapati Leiua. The Hurricanes led 17-3 after 20 minutes but were behind 18-17 at halftime; they led 24-18 three minutes into the second half but again fell behind, 26-24, before Leiua's try gave them their second win in six games.
There were moments in the match of outstanding individual skill but it was also a contest redolent with flaws and the inability of either team to hold a lead suggests neither can win the championship.
The Crusaders now head to South Africa for matches against the Lions and Cheetahs with little confidence of turning their season around. They were deficient in fundamental skills on Friday -- their kicking game was wayward and their attack is still misfiring. Captain, Kieran Read, walked from the field after only 26 minutes of his 100th Super Rugby game with a minor ankle injury and that in itself may be a sobering sign for Crusaders fans.
The spirit that propelled the team to seven championships between 1998 and 2008 seems to have ebbed away and the Crusaders six-year title drought is likely to continue.
"It's not one person making mistakes all the time," scrumhalf Andy Ellis said. "It's a lot of us making simple, silly mistakes at crucial times that is costing us."
Jason Woodward scored 27 points, including six penalties, for the Rebels who beat the Brumbies 32-24. The Brumbies, like the Crusaders, showed an inability to maintain a high level of performance throughout a match and captain Ben Mowen said the Rebels punished them for "flat spots."
"There were moments both teams could have been up for and they were up for it and it turned the game," Mowen said. "The hunger the Rebels showed in the middle of that second half definitely turned the game."