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Chiefs clinch 1st place in Super Rugby Pacific as playoff race heats up

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Hamilton-based Chiefs will take top seeding into the quarterfinals of Super Rugby Pacific after beating the ACT Brumbies 31-21 in Canberra on Saturday.

The Chiefs are now safe in first place with 54 points, seven points clear of the Christchurch-based Crusaders (47), heading into next weekend's final regular-season rounds.

By beating the best team in Australia by 10 points on its home ground Saturday, the Chiefs left no doubt they are the best team in the competition.

The best part of their performance was the defensive effort, though that lapsed a little in the last few minutes. The Chiefs led 17-7 at halftime and eased away to a 31-7 lead at one point with tries to Cortez Ratima and Shaun Stevenson — Stevenson's 11th of the season.

Both teams lost their captains to injury — the Chiefs' Brad Weber (head clash) and the Brumbies' Allan Alaalatoa (calf strain).

The defending champion Crusaders kept up a strong challenge for a top-two place with a 42-18 bonus-point win over the New South Wales Waratahs in Christchurch.

The Crusaders started the 14th round in second place in the standings and, with a late try to secure the bonus point, moved five points clear of third-place Blues (42 points). The Brumbies are fourth with 41 points and the Hurricanes fifth with 37.

The top two teams have home advantage as long as they remain in the playoffs.

Two tries including the crucial last try in the 78th minute came from the Crusaders’ famous lineout drive but others were team tries which featured strong carries and off-loading from players such as lock Sam Whitelock.

The Waratahs closed on the Crusaders with two second-half tries, briefly threatening the Crusaders’ bonus point. But replacement Sione Havili-Talitua scored from a driven lineout just before the end to restore a six tries to three bonus-point margin.

Flyhalf Riche Mo’unga scored a try and kicked six conversions from six attempts for 17 points.

“There’s one more week (of the regular season) and the table’s looking tight,” Crusaders captain Codie Taylor said. “This bonus point is crucial for us.

“There’s a couple of results we’ll be watching and we’ve got one more week which will be a tough one as well (against the Hurricanes).”

The Crusaders have lost three All Blacks props to injury and called up former All Black John Afoa from France as a replacement. At 39 years, 223 days, he is the oldest man to have played Super Rugby.

In Auckland, winger Mark Telea scored four tries for the Blues who beat the Wellington-based Hurricanes 36-25 to stiffen their challenge for a top-four place.

Telea scored twice in the first half, then twice in the last 15 minutes as the Blues struggled to hold out the resurgent Hurricanes.

The Blues dominated possession in the first 30 minutes but the Hurricanes came back into the match on either side of halftime. Winger Kini Naholo scored two tries as the Hurricanes twice drew within six points of the Blues in the dying minutes.

But center Rieko Ioane scored a vital try in the 74th minute and Telea skidded over for his fourth near fulltime to save the match.

The Fijian Drua hung on to beat Moana Pasifika 47-46 in Lautoka earlier Saturday in a match which contained all the best elements of Pacific Islands rugby. It was physical but it was also fast-paced and skillful, and it was played in glorious sunshine in front of an exuberant crowd.

Iosefo Masi scored three tries for the Drua who led throughout but couldn’t get a decisive break on Moana Pasifika, who for the second time in recent weeks came within a point of their first win of the season.

Former Wallabies flyhalf Christian Leali’ifano had a chance to win the match for Moana Pasifika with a last-gasp conversion of Samiuela Moli’s 80th-minute try, but he swung the ball wide of the posts.

The match saw 14 tries, eight in the first half after which the Drua led 26-24. The Drua led 47-27 after 57 minutes but Moana Pasifika almost snatched the match with three late tries.

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