Australian side continues to set the pace in the lead-up to the finals.
The race has tightened for this year’s Super 15 rugby championship with four points separating the top five teams after this weekend’s 13th round of matches.
Australia’s ACT Brumbies, who banked four competition points from a bye, lead the southern hemisphere provincial series by one point from defending champions Waikato Chiefs of New Zealand.
The Brumbies are also one point ahead of the Queensland Reds in the Australian conference.
South Africa’s Northern Bulls are third overall and trailing the Brumbies by four points after their weekend bye, with the leaders of each conference automatically filling the top three places in the championship standings.
The Chiefs survived a second-half fightback to edge Australia’s Western Force 22-21 to keep the pressure on the front-running Brumbies.
A dazzling four-try opening half set up the 2011 Super Rugby winning Reds for a 32-17 victory over South Africa’s Coastal Sharks in Brisbane.
The Auckland Blues survived a second-half fightback by the Melbourne Rebels to force their way back into the top six with a 36-32 win in an 11-try thriller at Eden Park.
The Canterbury Crusaders moved into the top six following their weekend bye and the 39-34 defeat of South Africa’s Central Cheetahs by the Wellington Hurricanes in Bloemfontein.
Wallaby contender Israel Folau scored a late try as the New South Wales Waratahs fought back for a dogged 21-15 win over the Western Stormers in Sydney, while the Southern Kings put a three-week nightmare behind them by defeating Otago Highlanders 34-27.
In Pukekohe, the Perth-based Force scored two tries to one but poor discipline cost them allowing Chiefs fly-half Aaron Cruden to kick five penalties and secure a narrow win.
The victory cemented the injury-hit Chiefs’ position at the top of the New Zealand conference but they suffered another blow when tournament top-scorer Gareth Anscombe was ruled out for six weeks with a broken foot.
The Reds ended a run of outs against the Sharks to earn a four-try bonus point in just 34 minutes before the South Africans recovered to win the second half 14-3.
The Durban-based Sharks had won six of their previous seven encounters against the Reds, including dumping Queensland out of last season’s play-offs in Brisbane, but the Reds were clearly superior on this occasion.
At Eden Park, former sevens star Frank Halai laid the foundations for Auckland’s victory over the Rebels with a first-half hat-trick of tries.
The Rebels, who came back from a 10-29 deficit at half-time to be rewarded with two bonus points, went down despite scoring five tries.
The Hurricanes kept alive hopes of a play-off place with a maximum five competition points against the Cheetahs.
It was a satisfying result for the Wellington team as they fared badly against South African opposition in the past two weekends — losing at home to Stormers and away to Bulls.
Former rugby league international Folau, who was outstanding in the Waratahs’ 72-10 rout of the Southern Kings in South Africa the previous weekend, scored the match-clinching try against the Stormers in the 77th minute of a grinding match.
The Waratahs found the disciplined Stormers’ defence tough to crack after their 11-try waltz against the Kings, but they scored the only two tries of the match against the Cape Town-based outfit.
Flanker Luke Watson and fly-half Demetri Catrakilis starred as the Kings recovered from recent heavy losses against the Bulls, Cheetahs and Waratahs to post their first success against New Zealand opposition in the shape of the Highlanders.