SYDNEY, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The absence of New Zealand test flyhalf Dan Carter and long-term coach Robbie Deans made no difference to the Canterbury Crusaders as they kicked-off the 2009 Super 14 season the same way they ended last year.
It was business as usual for the defending champions as they opened their campaign with a 19-13 win over the Waikato Chiefs in Christchurch despite losing Carter to French club Perpignan and Deans to Australia.
Crusaders centre Casey Laulala scored two tries, including one in the last minute to snuff out any hopes of a Chiefs' comeback, to cap an extraordinary opening round where only three home teams won and six of the seven matches were decided by less than a converted try.
"Obviously, being the first game of the season, you don't expect to be perfect, but we had our opportunities and we took them and I was pleased with that," Canterbury captain Richie McCaw said.
Australia's New South Wales Waratahs and ACT Brumbies both won high-scoring matches in New Zealand while South Africa were the big winners in the first round with three successful teams.
New South Wales, runners-up last season, survived a fierce second half comeback to beat the Hurricanes 26-22 in a spiteful match Wellington where rival backrowers Rodney So'oialo and Wycliff Palu were cited for stamping.
The Waratahs raced to a 19-0 lead inside the first 24 minutes after fullback Sam Norton-Knight and wings Lote Tuqiri and Lachlan Turner all scored tries but they ended the game defending deep inside their own half against a wave of Hurricane attacks.
"We did everything to lose the game after we got off to a good start," NSW skipper Phil Waugh said. "But the guys hung in there and it was a pretty good win in the end."
Flyhalf Christian Lealiifano kicked a last-minute drop goal to hand the Brumbies a 33-31 win over the Otago Highlanders in Dunedin.
The Highlanders scored three tries inside the first 20 minutes to lead 19-0 before the Brumbies, inspired by Australia captain Stirling Mortlock, replied with four tries of their own to pile on 30 unanswered points.
The Highlanders scored two late tries through replacement front rowers Chris King and Jason Rutledge to snatch the lead right at the end only to go down to a last-gasp drop goal.
"It was disappointing to let them back in but I guess they'll be more disappointed than us," Brumbies captain Stephen Hoiles said.
The Auckland Blues gained some revenge for New Zealand when they came from behind to outmuscle Australia's Western Force 25-19 in Perth.
The Blues trailed by 11 points in the first half and were running into a stiff breeze in the second but scored three tries in a devastating 12-minute blitz to seal the win.
"The Blues deserved to win," Western Force coach John Mitchell said. "They were pretty brutal in their contact."
South Africa's leading contenders, the Bulls and Sharks, both started their seasons with confidence-boosting wins.
The Bulls, champions two seasons ago, moved to the top of the standings with a 33-20 win over Australia's Queensland Reds in Pretoria while the Sharks scored 20 unanswered points to come from behind and beat the Stormers 20-15 at Cape Town.
The Johannesburg-based Lions, who finished bottom of the table last year, made a brighter start this time with a 34-28 victory over the Cheetahs at Ellis Park.
Editing by Nick Mulvenney