WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Super Rugby snapped out of its mid-season torpor Saturday with a thrilling match between the first-placed Chiefs and third-placed Hurricanes that showcased the quality of the New Zealand conference.
The Chiefs prevailed 28-27 in a match that featured eight tries, five lead changes, engrossing individual contests between star players, a dizzying display of skill and a smattering of tension and controversy.
The match was the best of the season so far - fast-paced throughout and not decided until the final play when Hurricanes fullback Jason Woodward dropped a pass from flyhalf Beauden Barrett with the goalline open.
Barrett was the player of the match, scoring a try, creating another while outplaying his rival for the All Blacks' No. 10 jersey this season, Aaron Cruden.
But while Barrett scored 10 points from a try, conversion and a dropped goal - only the fifth by a Hurricanes player in 21 years of Super Rugby - he was successful with only one of six attempts from the kicking tee.
The Chiefs again showed character by holding their one point lead while under severe pressure through the last 11 minutes of the match and despite being reduced to 14 men for the last five minutes.
They were forced to finish the match a man down when they ran out of front row replacements, forcing a move to uncontested scrums which blunted the Hurricanes' scrum superiority. Match officials enforced the rule that requires a team that causes uncontested scrums to lose a player rather than use an unqualified replacement in a front row role.
It was one of the last acts of a match which was already made controversial by the awarding of a crucial try to Chiefs winger Seta Tamanivalu who appeared to lose control of the ball over the line. Tamanivalu scored a second try in a match in which there were four lead changes in the first half and another immediately after halftime.
The Chiefs took the lead for the final time when backrower Michael Leitch scored in the 44th minute. They made their margin defensible with a try to Taleni Seu, created by fullback Damian McKenzie who was again in brilliant form and converted all four tries.
"When you win by one point goalkicking is pretty important and I thought he was superb again tonight," Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said.
"We weren't at our best and I'm not even sure we were the best team on the field tonight but we got four points."
The win gave the Chiefs a six point lead in the New Zealand conference but that was trimmed back to one point when the Crusaders took a bonus point from a 40-14 win over the ACT Brumbies in the last match of the round.
The Crusaders had four tries before halftime, when they led 26-7, and went on to post their sixth-straight win over the Brumbies and their highest-ever score in Canberra.
Hooker Codie Taylor scored two tries as the Crusaders, building on solid defense, outscored the Brumbies six tries to two.
"Not too many things went wrong for us," captain Kieran Read said. "I think it typified our defensive effort."
The round was made more memorable when Japan's Sunwolves posted their first win in Super Rugby.
A week after being routed 92-17 by South Africa's Cheetahs in one of the worst defeats in tournament history, the Sunwolves rebounded in Tokyo to beat Argentina's Jaguares, another new team, 36-28.
The Sunwolves showed character to top the Jaguares - a team packed full of Argentina internationals - after rallying from 18-13 down at halftime.
Former Samoa flyhalf Tusi Pisi kicked 18 points to lead the Sunwolves to victory even though they were outscored four tries to three.
The Cape Town-based Stormers remained atop the South African conference with a 40-22 win over the Queensland Reds and are five points behind the Chiefs on the combined table.
The Hurricanes held third place in New Zealand, taking a bonus point from their loss, while defending champions the Highlanders lost ground with a 15-14 loss to the Durban-based Sharks on Friday. The Highlanders have now lost back-to-back matches to fall back to sixth on the overall table.
The Sharks' win revived their playoffs chances, leaving them in fourth place in South Africa behind the Stormers, Lions and Bulls.
The New South Wales Waratahs also recharged their campaign with a 49-13, bonus point win over the Western Force. Center Israel Folau scored one of the Waratahs' six tries to become the leading tryscorer for the franchise in Super Rugby, overtaking Lote Tuqiri's career record of 29 tries.