Highlanders get 1st win, another great escape for Crusaders

By GERALD IMRAY - AP Sports Writer ,

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Crusaders Pete Samu, left, passes the ball to teammate Crusaders Jack Goodhue, right,during their Super 15 rugby match against the Brumbies in Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017.

Crusaders Pete Samu, left, passes the ball to teammate Crusaders Jack Goodhue, right,during their Super 15 rugby match against the Brumbies in Christchurch, New Zealand, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2017. (Photo: AP)

The Highlanders ground out a desperately needed first win of the season, the Crusaders produced another great escape for a third straight victory, and the Stormers led the resistance to the New Zealand teams' dominance in Super Rugby on Saturday.

A strong kicking game and superior set-piece helped the Dunedin-based Highlanders to 16-12 over the Auckland-based Blues, relief for the 2015 champions after starting the season with losses to the Crusaders and Chiefs.

The Christchurch-based Crusaders continued the strong form of New Zealand teams, coming from 20-7 behind for a 22-20 win over the Queensland Reds in Brisbane. Winning in the last minute from well behind is the record seven-time champion Crusaders' thing this season after overturning a 21-point deficit to beat the Highlanders right at the end last weekend.

South Africa's Cape Town-based Stormers also have three wins from three, dispatching the Southern Kings 41-10 and scoring six tries to the Kings' one. The Stormers have played all of their games in South Africa, though, and the real test of their potential will be when they hit the road.

Argentina's Jaguares picked up a significant win in their second season in Super Rugby, convincingly beating 2016 runner-up the Lions 36-24 in Buenos Aires in the last match of round three.

New Zealand's Waikato-based Chiefs lead the overall standings from the Stormers. The Sharks, also from South Africa, are third. The Crusaders and the defending champion Hurricanes, which lost at the Chiefs on Friday, hover not far behind those leaders, followed by the Jaguares.

There was just one try for the Highlanders at Auckland's Eden Park, and it came as a result of their smart tactical kicking. All Blacks scrumhalf Aaron Smith's kick bounced awkwardly in the Blues backfield, eluding several players and leaving Marty Banks to reclaim possession. Quick passing led to a try for center Malakai Fekitoa, converted from the sideline by Lima Sopoaga.

Trailing by four points, the Blues attacked the Highlanders' try-line for most of the last five minutes and went close on several occasions, but the defense held. It held after the Highlanders' backline was disrupted by injuries, which accrued rapidly for both teams, and they ended with forward replacements playing as backs. The Highlanders were reduced to 14 men for the final minutes.

"It was an awesome effort," Highlanders captain Elliot Dixon said.

The Jaguares forwards overpowered the Lions, and the backs outclassed them, despite the teams sharing eight tries.

A rampaging run down the wing by flanker Tomas Lezana set up fullback Joaquin Tuculet for the Jaguares' first score in the fourth minute, Ramiro Moyana added a second, and backs Jeronimo de la Fuente and Nicolas Sanchez rounded off compelling team moves early in the second half.

Two late tries by the Lions, with Lezana yellow-carded, made it a little more respectable for the Lions.

"They dominated us physically today," Lions captain Warren Whiteley said.

Last week, it was a last-gasp try that got the Crusaders home. This time, Mitchell Hunt's penalty from 35 meters out with just seconds left on the clock — after Samu Kerevi was penalized for sealing off the ball — put the Crusaders in front for the first time against Queensland and sealed their two-point win.

The Crusaders did it with 14 men following Jordan Taufua's yellow card for trying to punch Rob Simmons. The victory did take its toll on the Crusaders, though, with All Blacks pair Israel Dagg and Seta Tamanivalu, and flanker Peter Samu, leaving injured in the first half.

The Stormers are a point behind the Chiefs at the top of the combined standings after a routine win over the Southern Kings down the coast in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Wings Dillyn Leyds and Bjorn Basson, and flanker Rynhardt Elstadt scored tries in the first half. Robert du Preez, Justin Philips and EW Viljoen crossed in the second and the Stormers under stand-in captain Eben Etzebeth collected their first try-scoring bonus point of the season.

There was success for two other South African teams against traveling opposition.

The Cheetahs beat the Sunwolves in Bloemfontein, although only by 38-31 and they needed a 67th-minute try from center Rayno Benjamin to snatch the lead back from the Japan-based side. The Sunwolves matched the Cheetahs' four tries.

Boosted by an impressive comeback to beat ACT Brumbies in Australia in the last round, the Sharks scored three first-half tries against New South Wales Waratahs, led 31-7 at the break, and cruised home 37-14.

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