In a long season, it is no surprise that different teams rise to the top throughout a tournament which offers something different every week.
Following the highly-billed Kiwi derby in Dunedin on Friday, Super Rugby now have a fourth team in 12 weeks who will be deemed as tournament favourites.
After the early season plaudits went to the Brumbies, the Chiefs then took over after some swashbuckling performances before both suffered harrowing defeats.
The 'favourites' baton was then passed to the Crusaders who were on a run of eight-straight victories, before they were beaten convincingly on Friday evening by the 2015 champion Highlanders, who will end week 12 atop of the power rankings.
Stunning Highlanders win Southern derby to end Crusaders winning run
In the most hyped game of the season so far, an excellent performance from the 2015 champion Highlanders helped them see off the Crusaders 34-26 at Forsyth Barr Stadium in front of a record crowd.
Having gone behind to an early Lima Sopoaga penalty, the Crusaders enjoyed the best of the action in the opening 20 minutes, yet failed to force their way across their opponents try line. They had plenty of clean breaks, but couldn’t make the most of them, with Richie Mo’unga forced to take penalty kicks at goal instead, which saw Todd Blackadder’s side build a 9-3 lead after first quarter of the game.
Having soaked up the pressure in the early stages with some incredible defence, the Highlanders then grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck in 15 first half minutes, scoring three unanswered tries to lead 20-12 at the break.
Two of those tries were scored by All Black winger Waisake Naholo, who scored his second try brace in as many weeks. The first came after a pinpoint short-cross kick from Sopoaga, with the ball placed perfectly for Naholo to run onto and score.
Matt Faddes then lit up Forsyth Barr Stadium, showing an outstanding turn of pace to outrun a number of Crusader defenders for the second try, before he supplied the final pass for Naholo’s second just before half-time.
After twelve minutes of the second half, Faddes joined Naholo on a try double, after linking up well with centre partner Malakai Fekitoa, with Sopoaga adding the extras for a 27-12 lead.
The Crusaders were then given an opportunity to find a way back into the game when the Highlanders were reduced to 14-men following a yellow card to Joe Wheeler for an adjudged late shoulder charge. During the ten minute spell, they did manage to cross for their first try through Jordan Taufua to cut the gap to eight points with 20 minutes left on the clock.
Back with 15-a-side, and the Highlanders took control once more when Liam Squire smashed his way over the line for a try in front of a raucous home crowd, meaning Israel Dagg’s late try was nothing but a consolation and the eight-match winning run was at an end.
Brumbies trump Rebels in Melbourne, while Beale injury overshadows Waratahs victory
In the all-Australian clash at AAMI Park in Melbourne, the Brumbies overcame the Rebels 30-22 in a game the visitors never really looked like losing.
The hosts were quicker out of the blocks, and took an early lead when Cam Crawford hit a perfect line off of Jack Derbeczeni’s pass to speed away from the fractured Brumbies defence.
Stephen Larkham’s team then kicked into life and took the lead 15 minutes in, when David Pocock scored off the back of an excellent driving maul. The remainder of the first half was bossed by the Brumbies, with Rory Arnold and Christian Lealiifano crossing for scores just before the break for a 20-10 lead at the interval.
The second half was a real to-and-fro affair, with the Rebels first to cross the try line through Reece Hodge who capitalised on a huge overlap once the ball had been spun to the right. No sooner had the Rebels pulled within three points, and the Brumbies were scoring once more through Scott Fardy after some slick handling from substitute prop Ruan Smith.
It was then the Rebels turn to score, with star winger Sefa Naivalu finally finding himself in space to race away and score, before the Brumbies hit back again with nine minutes left on the clock through Nigel Ah Wong. The winger finished expertly in the corner to take the score out to 30-22, which is how the game ended meaning the Brumbies took home four points to the Rebels zero.
In Sydney on Saturday, the other Australian powerhouse, the Waratahs, kept up the pace at the top of the conference with a 31-8 bonus point win over the lacklustre Bulls. The game started disastrously for the hosts, who lost Kurtley Beale to a potentially serious knee injury in the opening 20 seconds, which almost certainly rules him out of Australia’s upcoming three-match series with the English.
The game was extremely error-strewn, and it took until 34 for a point to be registered by either side. The opening score was a try from Nick Phipps who found a whole in the defence before touching down under the posts, with Tian Schoeman cutting the deficit to 7-3 at half-time.
The second half wasn’t much better as a spectacle, with the referee’s whistle used on plenty of occasions. Dean Mumm scored his first try of the season to stretch the lead out to 11, before the game came to life in the final ten minutes, with the team’s sharing three tries.
Phipps crossed for his second after breaking a tackle close to the line, before Dries Swanepoel scored the Bulls first points of the half six minutes from the end. Just as it looked as though the Bulls had snatched away the hosts bonus point, replacement front-rower Angus Ta’avo crashed over from a yard out to assure the Waratahs of five match points.
Lions swarm Blues and Sharks keep in touch after tough win in Buenos Aires
The most dominant performance of the weekend occurred at a soaking Emirates Airlines Park, where the Lions demolished an abysmal Blues side 43-5.
Having suffered two heavy defeats at home to Kiwi opposition earlier in the season, the Lions made no such mistake in the rain on Saturday evening, firing out to a 19-0 lead after ten minutes, and never coming close to relinquishing their lead. Fly-half Elton Jantjies was the architect of everything positive for the Lions early on, putting in excellent kicks for tries finished off by Courtnall Skosan and Rohan Janse van Rensburg, after the home skipper Warren Whiteley had opened the scoring in the opening minute.
There were no more points in a scrappy first half, and then after the break it became the Lionel Mapoe show, with the Springbok centre scoring a hat-trick of tries. Warwick Tecklenburg also crossed for the hosts, with the Blues scoring a late consolation through substitute Kara Pryor.
Argentinian franchise, the Jaguares, fell to their eighth defeat of the campaign after suffering late heartbreak against the Sharks. Patrick Lambie’s penalty in the 79th minute secured the 25-22 victory for the Durban-side who are now two points behind the Lions in the Africa 2 conference.
In what was a thrilling first-half, the boot of Lambie was crucial to the Sharks, who built a 17-14 lead at the break despite scoring less tries than their hosts. Tomas Lavanini was the first Jaguare to score, running 25 metres following excellent work from Joaquin Tuculet.
Following a couple of Lambie penalties, the Jaguares were in once more when their leading try-scorer this season, Martin Landajo used his diminutive figure to burst through the defence and stretch over the line.
With half-time on the horizon, the home side were reduced to 14 men after Pablo Matera was sent to the sin-bin, and the Sharks capitalised instantly with Daniel du Preez burrowing over for their first try of the evening.
Another Lambie penalty in the 50th minute stretched the score to 22-17, before the Jaguares were handed a lifeline when Sibusiso Sithole was brandished with a yellow card after being caught offside. Just like the away side had done earlier, the Jaguares made use of the man advantage almost instantly, with prop forward Santiago Garcia Botta smashing his way over the line to equal the scores.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, Juan Martin Hernandez missed the resulting conversion and then with just two minutes left on the clock, the Jaguares front-row was penalised at the scrum, with Lambie slotting the match-winning penalty from 35 metres out.
Stormers snatch draw in Singapore, and Cheetahs knock off Kings
After dismantling the Sunwolves 46-19 just five weeks previously, a similar result was expected against the same opposition for the Stormers in Singapore, yet in the end they were fortunate to even secure a 17-17 draw.
The first half was not a good one for Robbie Fleck’s men, with handling errors and poor defence allowing the Sunwolves to build a 14-3 lead. Three penalties from Tusi Pisi, and a five-pointer from the competition’s top try scorer, Akihito Yamada had given the Japanese franchise the 11-point lead their performance deserved.
Pisi extended the lead to 14 ten minutes into the second half with his fourth penalty, and the home side then had a try disallowed after Yamada was adjudged to have made a double-movement close to the line.
The disallowed try seemed to kick the Stormers into life, and they got themselves back into the game when man of the match Pieter-Steph du Toit smashed his way over from a metre to out, just moments after he had made a big break to setup the strong field position.
The score stayed at 17-10 in the Sunwolves favour for around 20 minutes, and just as it seemed as though they had done enough to claim a famous win, a turnover deep in Stormers territory lead to a break out from Cheslin Kolbe which put the visitors in position to strike. After the siren had gone and following a number of darts at the line, prop Vincent Koch barrelled his way over two defenders to score, setting up an easy conversion for Brandon Thomson to secure the 17-17 draw and break Sunwolf hearts.
The Cheetahs claimed their third win of the campaign, after beating the Kings 34-20 in Bloemfontein. The home side scored four tries through Sergeal Petersen, Raymond Rhule, Michael van der Spuy and Uzair Cassiem, but the Kings grabbed two of their own thanks to Lukhanyo Am and JP Du Plessis, meaning they stopped the Cheetahs from grabbing a bonus point.
Canes unconvincing in bonus point home win against Reds
Following a week of turmoil at the Hurricanes, which saw five of their stars suspended internally for one match after missing a curfew in South Africa, Chris Boyd’s men claimed a bonus point 29-14 win over the Reds at Westpac Stadium.
Wes Goosen, who was filling in for one of the suspended stars Julian Savea, marked his debut for the Canes with the game opening try. A beautiful high cross-field from Beauden Barrett found the Reds backline at sixes and sevens, allowing Goosen to run onto the ball and away from the covering defenders for a relatively easy five pointer in the 14th minute.
Ayumu Goromaru had added a pair of penalties for the visitors, before the Hurricanes extended their lead just before half time, whilst Hendrick Tui was in the bin for the Reds. Against a seven-man forward pack, the Hurricanes put on the squeeze, and it led to the games second try through skipper Dane Coles, who later had to leave the game with injury.
The second half started with Jason Woodward capitalising on an errant pass from Jake McIntyre to score the Canes third try, before the Reds hit back through Chris Feauai-Sautia who cut an excellent line to go past three defenders untouched on his way to the line.
Substitute Ngani Laumape scored the hosts fourth try, and then Woodward finished things off in the 80th minute with a 90-metre intercept try, just as it looked as though the Reds would steal away the Hurricanes bonus point.