Super Rugby: Hurricanes, Highlanders show New Zealand power
The Hurricanes overwhelmed the Cheetahs 61-7 and the Highlanders routed the Western Force 55-6 in strident displays of New Zealand teams' might in Super Rugby on the weekend.
Only South Africa's Lions, who defeated local rivals the Bulls 51-14 Saturday for a ninth consecutive win, continued to show the kind of form — and attacking flair — needed to threaten the New Zealand sides.
Australian conference leaders the ACT Brumbies had a 19-10 win over the Southern Kings in South Africa, ending the Kings' winning run when they came from behind with second-half tries by Aidan Toua and Tom Banks.
But the Brumbies, the top Australian team in the competition, have won just four of their 11 games versus leaders the Crusaders, who are 12-0, and the second-place Lions, who have won 11 out of 12.
All five New Zealand teams have better records than the Brumbies, Australia's leading hope.
The New South Wales Waratahs moved to within four points of the Brumbies with a 50-23 win Sunday over the Melbourne Rebels to complete the round.
On Saturday, center Vince Aso scored three tries and became the leading try-scorer of the season by raising his tally to a club-record 13 for the defending champion Hurricanes as they blew away the struggling Cheetahs.
Aso began the match one try behind his midfield partner Ngani Leaumape, who previously led the season's try-scoring list with 11. Aso's first try against the Cheetahs allowed him to draw level with Leaumape and helped the Hurricanes to a 21-7 lead by halftime.
Inside center Leaumape then created two second-half tries for Aso, who first matched the season record for the Hurricanes — 12 by former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga — and then claimed that record for himself.
In a match of records at Wellington, the New Zealand capital, All Blacks flyhalf Beauden Barrett — who started the match at fullback — kicked five conversions from five attempts to lift his career tally in Super Rugby to 992.
Barrett moved into fourth place on the all-time scorers' list ahead of Andrew Mehrtens (990) and behind top-placed Dan Carter (1,708), Morne Steyn (1,431), and Stirling Mortlock (1,036).
In Perth, Australia, the Dunedin-based Highlanders won their eighth match in a row, and third straight on the road.
The New Zealand side scored eight tries to none and notched 45 unanswered points after the Force made it 10-6 midway through the first half. It gave the two Kiwi sides an aggregate advantage of 116 to 13 points over their opposition in the opening matches on Saturday.
The Lions raced ahead against the Bulls in Johannesburg thanks to a four-try burst in nine minutes in the first half. Springboks wing Ruan Combrinck returned from a long-term injury to collect two of the Lions' seven tries at Ellis Park.
The best was when lock Franco Mostert rampaged down field after a defense-splitting pass by Elton Jantjies, and put prop Ruan Dreyer clear to score between the posts.
In the race for top spot at the end of the regular season — and possibly a home final — the seven-time champion Crusaders lead the Lions by three points ahead of a home game against the Melbourne Rebels and then tough tests against fellow New Zealand teams the Highlanders and Hurricanes.
The Lions finish the regular season at home against the Kings and Sunwolves, and away to the Sharks.
The Brumbies also appear set for a playoff place by virtue of their lead in the Australian conference but are more than 30 points off the pace of the Crusaders, and struggled to get past the Kings.
The home team led after a third-minute penalty try, when Makazole Mapimpi was prevented from scoring by Brumbies fullback Banks, who was yellow-carded for knocking the ball out of Mapimpi's hands.
Josh Mann-Rea got the first try back for the Brumbies and Toua and Banks got their scores in the last 15 minutes to drag the Brumbies to victory.
The Sharks beat the Sunwolves 38-17 in Singapore, with the help of the three late tries, and are the second-best team from South Africa, albeit 13 points behind the Lions.