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Super Rugby: Crusaders start search for 3 in a row with win

February 17, 2019
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Luke Thompson of the Sunwolves tackles Daniel du Preez of the Shark during the Super Rugby match between the Sunwolves and the Sharks at Singapore National Stadium, in Singapore, Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Danial Hakim)

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) — Chasing three titles in a row, the Crusaders benefited from a pair of penalty tries and survived a strong second-half challenge from the Blues to open their Super Rugby season with a 24-22 away win on Saturday.

The Crusaders led 12-3 early at Eden Park but the New Zealand teams were locked at 17 midway through the second half before a second penalty try after a collapsed five-meter scrum gave the two-time defending champions some breathing space.

The Blues cut the lead again to two points with a try to scrumhalf Augustine Pulu with two minutes remaining. But the Crusaders were let off when replacement Harry Plummer missed the conversion of that try, which would have leveled the scores, and then a long-range penalty that would have given the Blues a season-opening victory against the competition’s most successful team.

The other game in Australasia on the first Saturday of the new season was also tight and also decided after a late missed kick at goal.

The Hurricanes, champions in 2016 before those back-to-back titles for the Crusaders, escaped from Sydney with a 20-19 win over New South Wales Waratahs. That came when Waratahs and Australia flyhalf Bernard Foley missed a penalty from just beyond 30 meters with just over a minute left.

Foley surpassed Matthew Burke’s Waratahs record of 959 points and landed all five attempts against the Hurricanes before his costly error.

It wasn’t tight in Singapore, where South Africa’s Sharks rebounded from an early try and a 10-3 deficit to the Sunwolves to score six tries of their own and win 45-10.

There were no points for the Sunwolves, World Cup host Japan’s struggling Super Rugby representative, after the 15th minute.

In the penultimate game of the opening round, the Bulls embarrassed the Stormers 40-3 in what’s normally South Africa’s most fiercely contested derby. This one was no contest as the Bulls scored four tries to none, three of them inside the opening 25 minutes.

Rosko Specman, a world title-winning player with South Africa’s sevens team, collected the first two tries on his Super Rugby debut and Springboks flyhalf Handre Pollard kicked 20 points for the Bulls and ran the game.

The Johannesburg-based Lions gave South African teams their third win of the first round when openside flanker Marnus Schoeman scored three tries in a 25-16 win over the Jaguares at Buenos Aires.

After a third-minute unconverted Lions try from Schoeman, the Jaguares took the lead 10-5 when Santiago Medrano crossed after the home side controlled possession for 14 phases.

But the Lions retook the lead on Schoeman’s second try of the match. Flyhalf Elton Jantjies’ conversion from the right sideline in the 33rd minute gave the visitors a 15-13 lead at halftime.

Schoeman burst over the line from one meter out to put the Lions ahead 20-13 about 10 minutes into the second half and another conversion from Jantjies gave the Lions a nine-point lead.

Joaquin Diaz Bonilla reduced the lead to six points with a penalty goal in the 60th minute but Jantjies, from 27 meters out, increased the lead back to nine with a penalty goal. From there, strong defending and two costly turnovers near the Lions’ goal line by the Jaguares allowed the South African side to hang on.

The Crusaders were dominant in the first half against the Blues, earning a penalty try for a collapsed maul close to the line in the 25th minute. But the Blues — with their home crowd lifting them — came back in the second and snatched the lead with a breakaway try finished by No. 8 Akira Ioane and a close-range score from Ofa Tu’ungafasi.

Responding like nine-time champions, the Crusaders scored three minutes later when winger Manasa Mataele went over for his second try of the game. The Crusaders forwards earned a second penalty try with a dominant scrum with just over 20 minutes to go, when the Blues pack buckled.

That proved to be enough, although Plummer could have made it a very different start to the season for the Crusaders if he’d been on target with the boot at the end.

“Coming up here we knew the Blues had been very good preseason and had a lot of attacking weapons,” Crusaders captain Matt Todd said. “So we knew we were in for a game.”

The Crusaders are the only team to win three Super Rugby championships in a row before, their first three titles from 1998-2000.

At the other end of the Super Rugby spectrum to the high-flying Crusaders, the Tokyo-based Sunwolves have won only six games in three seasons in the competition and finished last each time.

Hooker Akker van der Merwe scored two of the Durban-based Sharks’ six tries against the Sunwolves as the Japanese franchise — whose worth to Super Rugby was already being questioned — began Japan’s World Cup year with another heavy loss.

The Queensland Reds had a weekend bye.

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