Hurricanes stretch lead with win
The Hurricanes stretched their lead at the top of the Super Rugby standings with a 32-24 win and a bonus point, while the Western Force snapped a 10-match losing streak on Saturday, upsetting defending Super rugby champions New South Wales Waratahs 18-11.
In Wellington, the Sharks threatened to extend their good record against the Hurricanes as they got themselves in front time and again, but the Hurricanes always had an answer and finished strongly to go 14 points clear of the Bulls at the top of the table.
The Sharks had won four of the last five meetings between these teams, and started the game as if determined to make that a more relevant statistic than the four straight defeats which preceded this match.
They set about attacking from the off and soon led when the Hurricanes lost the ball from a line-out and Bismarck du Plessis crossed.
Frans Steyn slotted the conversion but, after a break in play due to an injury to Sharks fullback Lwazi Mvovo, the Hurricanes wasted little time in replying.
Lionel Cronje's 18th-minute penalty put the Sharks back in front, but the Hurricanes' response took only seconds and came in the form of a try, with the Sharks unable to bring down Conrad Smith.
A minute after Marshall kicked the conversion, the Sharks' Etienne Oosthuizen was yellow-carded for a high tackle but the Hurricanes could not make their advantage pay before his return and it remained 14-10 at the break.
Momentum soon swung back the other way as the Sharks launched a swift counter-attack in the 46th minute, allowing S'bura Sithole to race down the wing and score.
Again the Hurricanes' response was swift as they won a scrum five metres out and forced their way over for Reggie Goodes to score.
Injuries to Du Plessis and Nehe Milner-Skudder disrupted the game but it was the Sharks who regrouped most quickly as they began to put the Hurricanes under pressure once more.
They thought they had scored when they used a maul to drive over in the 60th minute, but the TMO ruled obstruction.
They came again four minutes later, stretching the Hurricanes on the wings and creating space for Odwa Ndungane to score.
Steyn kicked the conversion and this time the Sharks avoided immediately conceding points back, albeit only after Marshall missed with a penalty kick when Steyn was caught offside.
The game moved into the final 10 minutes with the Hurricanes trailing but they dug deep, piling on the pressure and getting their reward when Jeremy Thrush scored eight minutes from time after some acrobatic play from Ardie Savea, who was off the ground and over the line when he passed it back to Thrush.
Marshall missed the conversion but the Hurricanes kept up the pressure and two late penalties from Marshall secured the win.
At the Perth Oval, the Western Force upset the defending champions New South Wales Waratahs 18-11.
The Force held their nerve in a tense finish, despite being a man down for the last 10 minutes when their skipper Matt Hodgson was sin-binned, to register just their second win of a frustrating season.
Their only other win was also against the Waratahs in the opening round. Since then, they have lost 10 in a row, while the Waratahs had won seven of their last nine.
"I asked the boys to aim up physically this week and they responded," Hodgson said. "Hopefully we can use the last few games to build up some momentum into the last few games and next season."
The Waratahs picked up a bonus point for losing by less than seven to inch ahead of the ACT Brumbies at the top of the Australian conference standings but with both teams level on points with five matches each to play.
"I'm disappointed in the performance more than the result," said NSW captain Dave Dennis.
"The urgency in our attacking ruck and overall intensity was poor."
The Force outscored the Waratahs two tries to one and might have win by an even bigger margin had they not missed five shots at goal.
The Western Australians opened the scoring in the 20th minute when scrumhalf Ryan Louwrens followed the NSW defence with a dummy and darted through a big hole to score untouched.
The visitors could only manage two penalties to Bernard Foley in the first half and went to the break trailing 13-6.
They cut the margin two points when giant NSW winger Taqele Naiayaravoro barrelled his way through the Force defence to score out wide.
But the Force restored their seven-point gap when Hodgson scored off the back of a rolling maul 15 minutes from the end.
There were some anxious moment for the home side when Hodgson was given a yellow card for an infringement at the breakdown but NSW were unable to capitalise on their one-man advantage.