Crusaders romp to 9th straight win in Super Rugby

By GERALD IMRAY - AP Sports Writer ,

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George Bridge from the Crusaders with Clinton Swart from the Cheetahs left and Francois Venter (captain) from the Cheetahs right during the 2017 Super Rugby game between the Cheetahs and the Crusaders at Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein.

George Bridge from the Crusaders with Clinton Swart from the Cheetahs left and Francois Venter (captain) from the Cheetahs right during the 2017 Super Rugby game between the Cheetahs and the Crusaders at Toyota Stadium in Bloemfontein. (Photo: Gerhard Steenkamp/BackpagePix)

The Crusaders romped to a ninth straight win to keep hold of top spot in Super Rugby on Saturday, and closest rivals the Lions began their tour of Australia with a win and clinched a bonus point with the last move of the game.

New Zealand's Christchurch-based Crusaders demolished South Africa's Cheetahs 48-21 in Bloemfontein, with wing George Bridge getting a hat trick for the second time in two games and the Crusaders putting 40 points or more past their opponents for the fifth straight game.

Last weekend, the seven-time champion Crusaders hammered South Africa's Stormers. This time, the Cheetahs couldn't keep up as the unbeaten Crusaders seek a record-extending eighth title but the first in nearly 10 years.

Alongside Bridge's treble, fullback David Havili scored two tries and Richie Mo'unga and Mitchell Drummond also contributed to the seven-tries-to-three victory.

With the Stormers suffering back-to-back losses in New Zealand, South Africa's Johannesburg-based Lions emerged as the closest challengers to the Crusaders, grinding out a 24-15 win at the Western Force for an eighth win out of nine.

Flyhalf Elton Jantjies sliced through from close range well after the full-time hooter had sounded to give the Lions a third try and a bonus point that may be useful in the final reckoning. With the game won and the hooter gone, the Lions opted for a scrum from a penalty five meters out and Jantjies skipped through the Force backline, rewarding the adventure.

Lionel Mapoe and Courtnall Skosan scored in the first half for the Lions but the Force defended resolutely and were always in touch through the boot of Ian Prior, forcing the Lions to dig deep for a winning start to their three-game tour.

The Crusaders are four points clear of the Lions in the overall standings, with the Stormers third. ACT Brumbies, the top-placed team in the struggling Australian conference, are 24 points behind the Crusaders and 20 behind the Lions.

Also Saturday, Bernard Foley kicked seven goals from eight attempts for 19 points as the New South Wales Waratahs rallied to beat the Queensland Reds 29-26 in a tense Australian derby.

Foley landed five penalties and converted both of the Waratahs' tries as they came back from a 19-7 first-half deficit to beat the Reds for the seventh successive time.

Both teams came into the match with 2-6 records, and the Waratahs left Brisbane with a vital win which kept alive their hopes of reaching the playoffs.

Queensland led 19-7 after early tries to fullback Karmichael Hunt, lock Lukhan Tui, and rookie winger Izaia Perese.

The Waratahs rallied with tries to scrumhalf Nick Phipps and to flanker Michael Hooper, cutting the lead to 19-17 at halftime.

Perese was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle in the last minute of the first half and in his absence Foley kicked the penalty that gave the Waratahs their first lead at 20-19.

Queensland regained the lead at 26-20 with a try to hooker Stephen Moore, but poor discipline allowed Foley to kick three late penalties to clinch the win.

The Chiefs were fully stretched to beat the Sunwolves 27-20 and failed to score a bonus-point try against 13 players.

Fullback Damian McKenzie touched down once in each half as the Hamilton-based Chiefs, the two-time champions, managed to do just enough to hold out the best ever effort by the Tokyo-based Sunwolves against a New Zealand opponent.

A try by center Derek Carpenter in the 67th minute, converted by Jamie-Jerry Taulagi who also kicked a penalty in the 74th, left the Sunwolves only seven points behind the Chiefs.

That raised the prospect that the Sunwolves, who have won only two matches in two seasons in Super Rugby, might at least draw if not beat a team that won the championship in 2012 and 2013.

The Chiefs had a shot at a bonus-point try in injury time when Carpenter was yellow carded and Taulagi was shown a red card for a shoulder charge after the whistle.

Even with that numerical advantage, the home side was unable to extend its lead.

"A tough night's a good way to put it, mainly due to our own errors," Chiefs captain Sam Cane said. "The Sunwolves came to play and, gee, they played with some courage."

Like the Sunwolves, South Africa's Southern Kings have struggled over the last season-and-a-half in Super Rugby but put in their best performance on Saturday to rout Melbourne Rebels 44-3. It gave the Kings successive Super Rugby wins for the first time after last round's shock victory at New South Wales.

Ironically, the Kings appear to be finding their feet in Super Rugby when they're likely to be one of the two South African teams dropped from the tournament next season.

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