WELLINGTON, June 9 (Reuters) - James Lowe scored a 64th-minute try following a searing break from Shaun Stevenson to break a tense stalemate as the Waikato Chiefs beat the Wellington Hurricanes 17-14 on Friday to wrap up Super Rugby action before the international break.
Aaron Cruden also scored a first-half try for the visitors, with fullback Damian McKenzie slotting two conversions and a penalty.
Lock Vaea Fifita scored an early try for the home side with replacement winger Wes Goosen crossing with three minutes remaining to give the home side hopes of a late comeback but to no avail. Fullback Jordie Barrett added two conversions.
The majority of the match was characterised by several off-the ball incidents and superb defence by the Chiefs, who also had to play part of the second half with 14 men with Michael Allardice sinbinned for a dangerous charge.
Cruden, who was named in Steve Hansen’s All Blacks squad on Thursday for the British and Irish Lions series, suffered a knee injury shortly before halftime and did not appear in the second half.
The competition now takes a three-week break for the international window with all but New Zealand, due to the British and Irish Lions tour, playing test matches on Saturday.
Much of this year’s competition, however, has been overshadowed by the decision to cull three teams, two from South Africa and one from Australia, for next year.
The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) said in April that either the Western Force or Melbourne Rebels would be cut from the competition, prompting a bitter tussle with the two sides that is yet to be resolved.
On the field, the New Zealand teams have dominated the competition, with all five of their sides ranked in the top seven based on overall points.
The Canterbury Crusaders lead the overall table with 63 points after winning all 14 of their games so far, with the Hurricanes on 54, just ahead of the Chiefs on 53. The Otago Highlanders are on 46 with all four sides already confirmed for the playoffs.
The Auckland Blues (37) have been ruled out because of the convoluted conference system, with the ACT Brumbies (33) having sealed the Australian title and guaranteed a spot.
Such has been the dominance of the New Zealand sides that they have suffered just two losses to teams from other countries with both the Chiefs and Blues being beaten in Cape Town by the Stormers, who lead the Africa 1 conference on 30 points.
The battle for trans-Tasman supremacy has also been heavily skewed in New Zealand’s favour with their sides holding a combined 23-0 record against Australian teams, with just two games remaining in the competition.
South Africa’s Lions, last year’s beaten finalists, however, loom as the greatest threat to a New Zealand side from winning the country’s 15th title in 22 years.
Warren Whiteley’s side have taken the South African group by the scruff of the neck this year with a fast-paced attacking game and sit second on the overall table with 56 points.
They have a 14-point advantage over their Africa 2 conference rivals the Sharks, who they host in Johannesburg in both side’s final game on July 16.
Both the South African sides, however, have had the advantage of not playing any New Zealand teams this year and could potentially come undone in the playoffs.
Last year the Stormers did not play any New Zealand side in the regular season and were hammered 60-21 by the Chiefs in the first round of the playoffs in Cape Town.
The regular season will resume on July 7 with the sides from the South African group and Australia, while the New Zealand teams will rejoin in the last round of games the following week. (Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)