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Canes knock Crusaders off top spot, Blues edge Lions

The Blues fought back for a dramatic win over Golden Lions after losing their first two games of the competition © AFP / STRINGER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Mar 10 – A storming start set up Wellington Hurricanes for a 29-19 triumph over title-holders Canterbury Crusaders Saturday in a clash of the last two Super Rugby champions.

Golden Lions, the 2017 runners-up, also suffered a first defeat this season, losing 38-35 to Auckland Blues in a Johannesburg thriller after leading by 18 points.

Queensland Reds continued to recover from a mauling in their first match of the campaign, coming from 11 points behind to beat Northern Bulls 20-14 in Brisbane.

Coastal Sharks achieved their first victory this year by overcoming defensively brittle Sunwolves 50-22 before a small Durban crowd.

Jordie Barrett stole the limelight from big brother Beauden as the Hurricanes replaced Crusaders as New Zealand conference leaders on points difference.

The win by four tries to three was the Hurricanes’ sixth in a row at home against the Crusaders, and was built on a storming start that created a 21-0 lead after 21 minutes.

Crusaders’ cause was not helped by the loss of captain Sam Whitelock and backline general Ryan Crotty with head knocks in the first seven minutes.

The match was billed as a celebration of Beauden Barrett’s contribution to Hurricanes rugby as the All Blacks fly-half played his 100th match for the Wellington franchise.

But it was Jordie, in his 19th game, who put the Hurricanes on a winning path, playing an instrumental role in two early tries and landing a crucial 50-metre penalty in the second half.

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There was no sign of travel fatigue with the Hurricanes in their first home game of the year after playing in South Africa and Argentina.

Captain Brad Shields said they were determined not to use travel as an excuse if the game did not go their way.

“We knew we had to start really well and I’m really proud of the way we came out,” he said.

“It was a pretty tough test out there and playing these New Zealand teams you’ve got to stay on for 80 minutes.”

Crusaders’ comeback after twice trailing by 21 points cut Hurricanes’ lead to 26-19 when Mitch Hunt converted a Michael Alaalatoa try.

– ‘Hot potato’ rage –

But their hopes of a come-from-behind victory were dashed by Jordie Barrett’s long-range penalty.

In Johannesburg, Lions coach Swys de Bruin slammed his side for treating the ball like “a hot potato” as they fell to a last-minute Murphy Taramai try.

The Blues arrived in South Africa only on Monday after flight delays and appeared to be heading for a third straight loss when trailing 28-10 with 18 minutes remaining.

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But a couple of tries from All Blacks winger Rieko Ioane clawed them back into the match and a last-gasp attack ended with Taramai diving over close to the post.

“We played hard, with pride and passion, and executed better than in our previous two games. This is a massive result for us,” said Blues skipper James Parsons.

Blues rose one place to fourth in the New Zealand standings while the Lions have a seven-point lead in the South African table.

A Reds team that were down 14-10 at halftime dominated possession and territory in the second period to overhaul the Bulls.

Their scrum has been particularly dominant this year and had the Bulls pack under pressure throughout.

“We’re pleased (with the scrum) but we still want to work hard on it. We’re a young pack, but we’re not small,” Reds captain James Slipper said.

The second half belonged to the Reds and they hit the front thanks to an Aiden Toua try under the posts which James Tuttle converted.

A Jono Lance penalty gave the hosts a six-point buffer and they never looked like relinquishing the lead.

Reds climbed to second in the Australian conference, seven points adrift of Melbourne Rebels, who trounced ACT Brumbies 33-10 Friday.

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Springbok Tendai Mtawarira became the most capped Shark in Super Rugby when he made his 138th appearance in a comfortable bonus-point win over the Sunwolves.

“The forwards did their job and the backs finished off our work,” said the loosehead prop. “This was the performance we had been looking forward to.”

Wing Makazole Mapimpi scored twice for the home team, who led 24-3 at half-time against the Tokyo-based outfit.

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