JOHANNESBURG — Aaron Cruden led the Chiefs back to the top of the standings and the Lions won big for the second straight week in Super Rugby on Saturday.
All Blacks flyhalf Cruden had a try among his 14 points as the Chiefs took a bonus point from beating the Melbourne Rebels 36-15 to go back above fellow New Zealand team the Crusaders with four rounds left.
After routing the Blues last round, South Africa's Lions scored eight tries in pounding Argentina's Jaguares 52-24, with wings Courtnall Skosan and Ruan Combrinck both grabbing a brace.
That wasn't the most convincing win of the weekend as the Sharks beat the Southern Kings 53-0, with fit-against Springboks flyhalf Patrick Lambie outdoing Cruden with two tries and 23 points.
Japanese newcomers the Sunwolves provided another brave display but lost again, 35-25 to Australia's Queensland. The Blues won at the Force in a battle of the lowest-placed teams from New Zealand and Australia respectively.
In the round's final clash, early South Africa pacesetters the Stormers dropped out of the playoff places completely by losing at the Bulls 17-13.
The Crusaders started the weekend level with the Chiefs and Highlanders but ahead in the Australasian group and the overall competition on points differential. They moved into an outright lead with a 29-10 win over New South Wales Waratahs on Friday.
But the Crusaders were denied a bonus point in that match and the Chiefs were able to edge ahead by taking a full five competition points.
Chiefs hooker Nathan Harris scored his first Super Rugby try when he touched down off Cruden's chip kick behind the defense. American-born winger Toni Pulu then scored. Cruden added the Chiefs' fourth try from a long buildup for a 26-3 lead by halftime.
Reds fullback Mike Harris converted his own try five minutes after the restart to make it 26-10. The Chiefs lost their way in the second half and took 29 minutes to add to their score with a Cruden penalty before Andrew Horrell eventually got their fifth try.
"We were really pleased with the first half," Chiefs captain Sam Cane said. "It was disappointing we didn't show that for the whole 80 minutes but that's a mindset, attitude thing."
In a South African derby marked by bone-crunching hits, replacement Tiaan Schoeman kicked a 75th-minute dropped goal for the Bulls to end a late Stormers fightback inspired by a try seven minutes earlier by South Africa center Damian de Allende.
With just one win from their last five, the Cape Town-based Stormers have slipped behind the Lions, Bulls and Sharks.
Missing suspended Argentina captain Agustin Creevy and No. 8 Leonardo Senatore, who is serving a biting ban, the Jaguares were only 12-9 down to the Lions just before halftime in Johannesburg. But two quick tries either side of the break from forwards Lourens Erasmus and Cyle Brink took the Lions out to 24-9 and they never looked back. The Lions lead the South African group with the Stormers' challenge slipping away.
Queensland back-rower Curtis Browning scored two tries to cancel out two from the Sunwolves' Derek Carpenter as the Reds beat the Tokyo-based side.
Japan World Cup star Ayumu Goromaru started at fullback for the Reds — facing many of his international teammates — and kicked two penalties and two conversions. The crowd of 19,073 was the Reds' biggest of the season, boosted by several hundred traveling fans from Japan.
Sunwolves coach Mark Hammett said it was his team's best performance against an Australian side.
"We didn't get it all right by any means, but the attitude is always right," Hammett said. "It's another effort that the Sunwolves and Japan rugby should be proud of."