Fijians fire in Super Rugby shake-up
Wellington - It was Fijians to the fore as Jone Macilai and Waisake Naholo led a shake-up of Super Rugby in round 11 which resulted in the Canterbury Crusaders emerging at the head of the pack.
And while competition guardians SANZAAR decided there was no room for a South Pacific team in this year's expanded league, Fiji will host the likely defining match of the regular season when the Crusaders play Waikato Chiefs in Suva on July 1.
Macilai scored three tries as the Crusaders posted their eighth consecutive win when burying the Queensland Reds 38-5, while Fijian-born All Black wing Naholo bagged a double in the Otago Highlanders 26-13 win over the Waikato Chiefs.
The Chiefs' loss saw the Crusaders move to the head of the table while the defending champion Highlanders showed they are finding form at the business end of the season, moving up to third in the New Zealand conference.
In the Africa conferences, the Northern Bulls remain a point behind the Western Stormers in Africa 1 with their chance to hit the front evaporating when beaten 23-6 by the ACT Brumbies.
The Coastal Sharks closed to within one point of the Golden Lions in Africa 2 conference with their decisive 32-15 victory over the Wellington Hurricanes.
The Brumbies regained control of the Australia conference but are in a precarious position with the NSW Waratahs second on points differential only and with a game in hand.
With the competition rules dictating the conference leaders fill the first four places, New Zealand's domination means the second-placed Chiefs are deemed to be fifth which places huge importance on their "home" match against the Crusaders in Suva.
The Chiefs requested last year the game be in Fiji, with their chief executive Andrew Flexman saying they were eager to have more top-class rugby in the Pacific islands.
"Fijians have added a huge amount to New Zealand's rugby heritage and it is fitting that we can give something back," he had said.
The Fiji influence was evident at the weekend, with Highlanders captain Ben Smith saying his team was lifted by the mere presence of Naholo in his comeback appearance after breaking a leg in the opening game.
"He's had that presence during the week at training and the boys get excited when they see the ball in his hands. It's great to have him back," Smith said.
It was not just Naholo's tries, and the work of fellow Fijian Patrick Osborne, who set up the first of them, that won the match for the Highlanders.
It was also their cheeky game plan of playing to the Chiefs' strengths by kicking to the best counter-attacking side in the competition and using the hard-chasing Naholo and Smith to pressure them into mistakes.
The Crusaders outscored the Reds six-tries-to-one in a bonus-point display with Macilai taking on the role of chief points scorer while usual scoring-machine and fellow Fijian Nemani Nadolo served a four-week suspension.
Macilai scored two tries in the first eight minutes to set the Crusaders up for their eighth consecutive win.
The Sharks shocked the Hurricanes 32-15 in a lively encounter in Durban with tries either side of half-time by JP Pietersen making a critical difference.
The only disappointment for the home side was conceding a late try, which cost them a bonus point that would have seen them overtake the Lions as conference leaders.
The Waratahs also needed a bonus point win to overtake the Brumbies on the Australian ladder, but were foiled by a forward pass at the end of their 21-6 win over the Central Cheetahs.
The Sydneysiders scored two tries to none and thought they had the vital third when Israel Folau crossed in the corner right on full-time, only for the try to be disallowed.
The Auckland Blues won on the road for the first time in two years when they beat the Southern Kings 34-18 in Port Elizabeth.
In Tokyo, Marcel Brache scored an early hat-trick as the Western Force thrashed the Sunwolves 40-22.