PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — The three newest teams in Super Rugby won some respect on Saturday, although in the case of the Southern Kings a thrilling win over three-time champions the Bulls was in vain as it came a day after it was confirmed they will be axed from the competition next season.
Kings captain Lionel Cronje kicked a penalty after the fulltime hooter to snatch the last-gasp 31-30 victory, and after the Kings threw away a 22-3 lead to be trailing into the dying seconds before Cronje's match-winner.
The Kings of South Africa and Jaguares of Argentina were victorious in the penultimate round of the regular season, with the Jaguares registering an equally impressive 40-27 win over the New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney.
Japan's Sunwolves, the other team introduced to Super Rugby last year, lost to the Stormers 52-15 in Cape Town in the round's last game, but scored two tries, kept the playoff-bound Stormers honest, and were overrun only in the last 20 minutes.
The three games had little effect on the playoffs, with the Kings and Bulls, Jaguares and Waratahs, and Sunwolves all out of contention. The Stormers have already qualified for the knockouts and retained third place in the overall standings, which will give them a slightly better seeding in the playoffs if they stay there after next week.
For the Port Elizabeth-based Kings, especially, it was about pride as they played a day after the South African rugby union announced they and the Bloemfontein-based Cheetahs will be the two South African teams cut from Super Rugby.
Despite the bad news, which the Kings knew was coming for months, they raced out to a 22-3 lead away in Pretoria with tries by Makazole Mapimpi, inspirational skipper Cronje, and Malcolm Jaer. The Bulls hit back with three tries of their own, and the last one by replacement hooker Jaco Visagie in the final minutes appeared to have sealed the comeback.
The Kings kept fighting, though, with their pack winning a scrum penalty after the hooter and Cronje coolly slotting it for an emotional win, the Kings' sixth of the season. The bitter irony for the Kings is that they will be dropped after their best-ever season in Super Rugby.
In Sydney, center Matias Moroni scored the clinching try for the Jaguares over the Waratahs on a kick and chase with 12 minutes remaining. The Jaguares led 15-0 early and 25-10 at halftime and dominated the Waratahs for much of the match to win for only the second time on the road this season.
Flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez kicked three conversions and three penalties for the Jaguares.
The Sunwolves, crushed 94-7 by South Africa's Lions last weekend, showed some heart against the Stormers with tries by Teruya Goto and Takeshi Hino and were in it at 26-15 with just over 20 minutes to go. But the Stormers ran away with it from there, with fullback Dillyn Leyds scoring a double in the last 20 and wing Cheslin Kolbe completing his hat trick to take the Stormers' try tally to eight.
On Friday, flyhalf Quade Cooper kicked a last-minute penalty goal to give the Queensland Reds a 16-15 win over the ACT Brumbies, and the Western Force beat the Melbourne Rebels 31-22.
Only the first-place Brumbies will advance to the playoffs from the Australian conference. They have won only six of 14 matches — the same number of wins as the departing Kings — yet clinched the mediocre Australian group three weeks ago.
Australia also must cut one of its teams from Super Rugby next season, and the Force and Rebels are the two being considered for elimination when the league is reduced to 15 teams from 18.
At the end of their match in Perth, players from the Force and Rebels formed a big circle and linked arms in the middle of the pitch. And the Rebels accepted the Force's invitation to join them for a post-match beer to discuss the pending departure of one of them.