A clean sweep by New Zealand teams in the important 13th round of Super Rugby Pacific appears an ill omen for their Australian rivals with the playoffs now only three weeks away.
The round saw the first clashes this season of the top Australian and New Zealand teams and results may have dampened confidence in Australia after their early successes in trans-Tasman matches.
The Christchurch-based Crusaders beat the ACT Brumbies 37-26 in Canberra, inflicting only the Brumbies’ second loss in 12 matches. The Auckland-based Blues then beat the Queensland Reds 53-26 which saw the Reds slip back to seventh place, two spots behind the New South Wales Waratahs who lost 22-18 to the Wellington-based Hurricanes.
The Dunedin-based Highlanders beat the Western Force 61-10 on Friday and the Hamilton-based Chiefs beat the Melbourne Rebels 33-30 on Sunday to bookend the sweep by all five New Zealand teams.
After 13 of 15 regular season rounds, the New Zealanders occupy three of the top four and five of the top eight places on the 12-team table.
The Blues’ performance against the Reds was the most striking of the round. They underlined their top ranking with a win by eight tries to four, managing to stretch out their performance over 80 minutes after several matches earlier in the season when they faltered in the second half.
The decision-making axis of scrum half Finlay Christie, flyhalf Beauden Barrett and fullback Stephen Perofeta was a key to the Blues success. They were able to keep the Reds on the back foot, picking out strong runners such as Bryce Heem and Caleb Clarke who both scored two tries or turning the Reds with well-placed kicks.
One such kick from Perofeta resulted in a try for Barrett which Blues head coach Leon MacDonald called “a thing of beauty.”
“I really enjoy playing with Stevie (Perofeta) and we connect well off the field when we talk,” Barrett said. “We see the game very similarly.
"I like his composure and the way he reads the game and obviously his skills. We understand our importance in leading the boys around the park and we have good alignment when it comes to that.”
The match between the Crusaders and Brumbies was thought likely to be the most informative of the round, matching the best-performed of the Australian teams against 12-time champions who have been playing below their best form.
The Crusaders again were emphatic winners. Led by Argentina backrower Pablo Matera, the Crusaders led 22-5 by halftime but the Brumbies took heart from a more competitive second half.
Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa said the Brumbies will have to quickly regroup before facing the Blues next weekend.
“Whether we’ve bounced back off a loss is going to be huge,” Alaalatoa said. “We want to see a change in intensity throughout the week.
“We obviously know the Blues are in some good form. We’ve just got to make sure we improve with errors and our physicality.
“We’ve just got to make sure we’re clear on those learnings and how we can turn that around because if we do the same thing again next week we’ll probably be in same situation.”
More AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports