JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The defending Super Rugby champion Crusaders lost for the second match in a row on Saturday while the Lions, last season's losing finalists, only just avoided the same fate — and a huge upset — in a tense two-point win over the struggling Sunwolves.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders were beaten 25-17 by the Dunedin-based Highlanders to follow last weekend's 29-19 loss to the Wellington-based Hurricanes.
The injury-hit Crusaders were again outplayed by a New Zealand rival, scoring first before losing the lead to the Highlanders in the 10th minute and trailing for the remainder of the match.
The Lions almost lost a second straight game at their high-altitude Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg, where they were near unbeatable to reach the Super Rugby final the last two seasons.
Having lost in the last minute to New Zealand's Blues last weekend, the Lions were pushed to the limit by the Japan-based Sunwolves before prevailing 40-38.
The Sunwolves, crushed 94-7 at the Lions last season to underline the apparent gap between the teams, led 31-26 with 20 minutes to go on Saturday, setting up a contender for shock of the tournament.
Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx bustled over in the 62nd minute from a rolling maul for his second try of the game, putting the Lions ahead for the final time and quashing any chance of an upset.
Also in South Africa, the Cape Town-based Stormers ended a three-game losing streak on tour in Australasia with a 37-20 win over the Blues, whose joy at succeeding in Johannesburg a week ago was short-lived.
At Canberra, Australia, the ACT Brumbies beat the Durban, South Africa-based Sharks 24-17.
Switching captain Christian Lealiifano to inside center and putting Wharenui Hawera at No. 10 worked well for the Brumbies as Hawera slotted all of his four penalty kicks to go with tries by wings Lausii Taliauli and Henry Speight.
The Highlanders, now with three consecutive wins to open the season, scored three tries to two against the Crusaders, including one while they were reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo.
They nudged further ahead through late penalties from flyhalf Lima Sopoaga.
The Crusaders' major injury loss was their captain Sam Whitelock, ruled out with concussion symptoms, and they missed his leadership in the late stages of the match when they closed within two points.
"We knew it was going to come down to the wire," Highlanders captain Ben Smith said. "I think at times we were able to play smart rugby. We lost (Naholo) and we adjusted well. There are going to be times when that's going to happen and things aren't going to go well but we're still learning, and it's early in the competition."
The Crusaders played some superb and creative rugby but the Highlanders were able to exert more control, especially in the late stages of the second half.
The Crusaders also had a try by backrower Jordan Taufua disallowed before halftime when the video referee detected a knock-on.
That try might have given the Crusaders a lead at the break. Instead, they went to halftime trailing 14-10 and the Highlanders were able to open a nine-point advantage with a try in the 50th minute from flanker Elliot Dixon.
In Johannesburg, Kazuki Himeno's 59th-minute try, the fourth from the Sunwolves, gave the visitors a 31-26 lead going into the final quarter.
Marx put the Lions back ahead a couple of minutes later from a maul, a favored Lions tactic that the Sunwolves had successfully neutralized up to that point. Replacement center Rohan Janse van Rensburg dived over 10 minutes later for the Lions' sixth try, ensuring another try by the Sunwolves on the fulltime hooter by Atsushi Sakate didn't matter.
For the Lions, relief rather than elation was the overriding emotion at the end as the home team didn't celebrate.
"We got the win and we're grateful for it but disappointed with a few things as well," Lions hooker Marx said.
The Melbourne Rebels are the surprise pacesetters in Super Rugby with three wins from three and can extend that winning record against New South Wales Waratahs in Sydney on Sunday. The Lions sit second, on points difference, with the Highlanders third.