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Chiefs winless streak ends in turbulent weekend in Super Rugby Pacific

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The weekend’s 12th round of Super Rugby Pacific saw a steady shuffling of top-four places, then a return to something like the status quo as the Chiefs tumbled to their first loss, the Crusaders beat the Blues in a derby donnybrook and the Hurricanes reached a record score against Moana Pasifika.

The ACT Brumbies started and finished the round in second place but only after a desperate struggle with the Dunedin-based Highlanders on Sunday. The 10th-placed Highlanders led at halftime and were ahead 32-26 at the three quarter mark.

But two late tries to Pete Samu and a long-range effort from speedster Corey Toole carried the Brumbies to a 48-32 win and cemented them in second place, six points behind the Chiefs.

The Hamilton-based Chiefs had managed to clear every obstacle in the first 11 rounds of the season and to assemble the longest winning streak in their history, including four wins over top-four teams. But they fell unexpectedly on Saturday to the seventh-placed Queensland Reds who had won only four times this season and not once in their last 21 matches in New Zealand.

The Crusaders ground out a 15-3 win over the Auckland-based Blues on a cold night in Christchurch. Defense coaches and ardent fans of derby football might have been impressed but for most it was a dour struggle. Even Crusaders captain Scott Barrett called the match “ugly.”

Those who prefer their matches fast-paced and high-scoring would have been fully satisfied a few hours earlier when the Wellington-based Hurricanes ran in 11 tries including three to captain Ardie Savea in a 71-22 win over Moana Pasifika.

The Chiefs had looked unbeatable until Friday when the Reds under departing head coach Brad Thorn found a formula to end their winning streak. The Reds’ defensive line was straight and strong and after a first half in which winger Etene Nanai-Seturo scored two tries, the Chiefs struggled to find a way around it or through it.

At the same time the Reds kicked deep, proving the aphorism of the legendary Australian rugby league coach Johnny Raper that you can never kick a football too far or too high. The Chiefs were turned around and forced to concede territory.

It was a lesson that could have been learned later by All Blacks flyhalves Beauden Barrett for the Blues and Richie Mo’unga for the Crusaders. Barrett kicked badly and unnecessarily, wasting possession in a tight game but both No. 10 didn’t kick for distance and that was costly.

The Chiefs certainly learned the lesson and will apply it from now on.

“They won the kick battle,” Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan said. “They seemed to have an extra 10 or 15 meters on their kicks in comparison to ours so we spent a lot of time at the wrong end of the field.

“We’ve got to find some solutions around that because other teams will see some opportunities there. If there’s a positive, it’s that we can start finding those things out about our game now rather than in a few weeks.”

Chiefs flyhalf Damian McKenzie has been the best and most penetrative playmaker of the season so far but he was shut down by the Reds, forced to run across the face of the defense looking for gaps which weren’t there.

Mo’unga outpointed Barrett in the contest of the playmakers in Christchurch but neither was pivotal. The match was decided in the contest for possession which the Crusaders won by more than 70 percent in the first half and 60 percent overall.

All Blacks fans might be concerned that the Crusaders, coached by the next All Blacks coach Scott Robertson, are predictable in their attack and managed only a try in each half from such an overwhelming share of possession. The Blues were forced to make more than 200 tackles and missed 26 but the Crusaders couldn’t capitalize.

“To be fair, they defended extremely well — to have that many tackles and us not to get over,” Robertson said. “They were heroic. They’ve gone deep to the well defensively and kept us to two tries.”

The Hurricanes had no such troubles on fine afternoon in Wellington. They scored five tries in the first half — two to winger Kini Naholo — and six in the second including three to Savea. Their ability to offload in tackles made defense difficult for Moana Pasifika.

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