Crusaders cruise to 13th consecutive win in Super Rugby
Even 10 changes to their starting lineup couldn't prevent the Crusaders from extending their winning streak in Super Rugby to 13 games on Saturday.
The New Zealand side remained unbeaten after cruising past the Melbourne Rebels 41-19, stretching their overall standings lead to eight points with the second-placed Lions playing on Sunday.
Flanker Jed Brown scored two of the six tries for the Crusaders, while Richie Mo'unga kicked four conversions and a penalty.
It was the 20th consecutive win by New Zealand teams over Australian sides this season.
Defending champions the Hurricanes didn't need All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett to beat the Bulls 34-20 in South Africa, improving their record to 10 wins from 12 games.
Barrett was a late withdrawal from the lineup in Pretoria, with no reason given for his exclusion, although he did act as a water carrier for his teammates suggesting there was no serious injury.
Even without him, the Hurricanes outscored the Bulls by five tries to two to retain second place in the New Zealand conference, 11 points behind the runaway Crusaders.
Barrett's brother, Jordie, Ngani Laumape, Wes Goosen, and Mark Abbott scored first-half tries for the Hurricanes, and replacement hooker Leni Apisai's second-half score delivered a bonus point.
Otere Black added three conversions and a penalty starting at No. 10 in place of Barrett.
The Crusaders' recent schedule had them playing in South Africa and a match last Friday in Fiji, and now have two tough New Zealand derby games to finish the regular season, maybe explaining the decision to rest players in Melbourne with the playoffs approaching.
Melbourne coach Tony McGahan said he didn't think the Crusaders were taking the Rebels lightly with the wholesale changes, which included the return from injury of All Black Israel Dagg on the wing.
In their all-South African fight, the Sharks made a strong start and led the Stormers 15-0 at halftime before grinding out a 22-10 win.
Center Johan Deysel jinked over from close range and lock Stephan Lewies smashed over, also close in, to give the Durban-based Sharks their commanding first-half lead.
The Cape Town-based Stormers closed the gap to 15-10 with a try from former Sharks player SP Marais. Their comeback was snuffed out by an exhilarating try by Sharks wing S'busiso Nkosi, who broke a tackle in the Stormers backline and raced clear to go between the posts.
As the South African teams head to their June break for internationals, the Stormers still have a comfortable enough lead in the Africa 1 conference to be confident of a playoff place. The Sharks trail the Johannesburg-based Lions in Africa 2, with the Lions aiming to close the gap at the very top on the Crusaders when they play the Southern Kings on Sunday.
Meanwhile, New Zealand's Highlanders extended their winning streak to nine games with a 44-28 win over the New South Wales Waratahs, scoring two tries while the Australian side was down to 14 men during the second half.
The Waratahs scored the second of two first-half tries on the tick of halftime to take a 14-13 lead to the break. But the sin-binning of lock Dean Mumm for a dangerous lifting tackle in the 45th minute proved costly and the Highlanders needed only a minute to take advantage, scoring a try to hooker Liam Coltman to reclaim the lead.
Winger Tevita Li scored five minutes later and the Highlanders were 23-14 ahead. A further try to replacement winger Rob Thompson, which marked the first of several significant contributions from the Highlanders' bench, made the lead an out-of-sight 30-14.
At Tokyo, flanker Uzair Cassiem scored two tries and flyhalf Niel Marais had a try among 15 points as South Africa's Cheetahs outclassed Japan's Sunwolves 47-7.
The Cheetahs, who have beaten the Sunwolves in all four of their meetings, approached halftime with a 7-0 lead. But tries to Marais and Neill Jordaan on either side of the break blew out the lead to 19 points and allowed the Bloemfontein-based side to pull away.