CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — Two New Zealand sides — the Hamilton-based Chiefs and the Crusaders from Christchurch — won their fourth consecutive matches on Friday to remain the early class in Super Rugby.
The Chiefs beat the Melbourne Rebels 27-14 with a bonus point to take a three-point lead over the Crusaders in the New Zealand conference. Their win came shortly after the Crusaders beat the Auckland-based Blues 33-24.
The only other unbeaten team in the tournament, the Cape Town, South Africa-based Stormers, won't have a chance to improve on their season record. The 3-0 Stormers had a weekend bye.
After coming from 21 points down to beat the Highlanders 30-27, and from 17 points behind to beat the Queensland Reds 22-20 in injury time, the Crusaders scored 28 unanswered points to recover from a 24-5 deficit just after halftime on Friday.
Center George Moala scored two tries and winger Manasa Mataele scored another as the Blues took advantage of 60 percent of possession and 16 missed tackles by the Crusaders to lead 21-5 at halftime.
Piers Francis, starting for the first time at flyhalf, converted all three tries and added a penalty six minutes after halftime to give the Blues a 24-5 lead.
But the tide of the match turned when the Crusaders were able to capture more possession and break the Blues' dominance in the contest for possession on the ground.
The Crusaders launched their comeback with two tries from lineout drives, an area in which they were dominant, and by those means cut the Blues' lead to 24-19 after 56 minutes.
Replacements Peter Samu and Ben Funnell scored those tries and the Crusaders went close to several more as the Blues appeared completely lost attempting to defend the rolling maul.
"It would be quite nice if we started before halftime but a win's a win," Crusaders captain Sam Whitelock said. "The Blues really took it to us early on with their big guys carrying well and we just weren't at home."
In Melbourne, Chiefs flanker Sam Cane scored in the 77th minute to help clinch the match before Shaun Stevenson added a bonus-point try before the final whistle.
The Rebels trailed 7-3 at halftime after three missed penalties by Reece Hodge, but led three minutes into the second half through winger Marika Koroibete's try before the Chiefs' late comeback.
Cane said the only positives his team could take from the match were the competition points and the last five minutes, admitting they "won ugly."
"They really took it to us for the majority of the game and put us under lots of pressure," Kane said. "They were physical and direct, and to be fair we struggled with that."