By Jake Beleski
The 2017 Super Rugby competition is only three weeks old, but mounting injury tolls are already threatening to derail campaigns.
The Highlanders are arguably going to be affected most, with Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Naholo and Tevita Li all joining the casualty list following Saturday’s 16-12 win over the Blues.
It was a match that nearly slipped from the Highlanders’ grasp in the final moments, as the Blues came within a couple of metres of scoring the match-winning try before Patrick Tuipulotu spilled the ball forward.
There was only one try in the match — scored by Highlanders’ centre Malakai Fekitoa after the Blues failed to gather a bouncing ball following an Aaron Smith chip kick.
The Blues had opportunities to take the lead in the final quarter, but handling errors at crucial moments consigned them to their second loss in succession.
The Crusaders, in contrast, made no errors when it mattered most against the Reds.
For the second week in a row they staged a remarkable comeback in the final minutes, eventually taking the lead for the first time in the match with the final kick of the game.
The Reds raced to a 20-7 lead at halftime, but failed to add any points in the second half, allowing the Crusaders to snatch the late victory.
A double to replacement halfback Bryn Hall brought them within striking distance, and it was left to first five-eighth Mitch Hunt to nail the last-minute penalty and secure a 22-20 win.
Unfortunately, the win appeared to come at a cost for the Crusaders after fullback Israel Dagg and winger Seta Tamanivalu both limped off with leg injuries in the first half.
The win means the Crusaders remain unbeaten through three rounds, and will now prepare to host the Blues in Christchurch in round four.
The Chiefs secured their spot at the top of the New Zealand conference, as well as the overall standings, with a hard-fought 26-18 win over the Hurricanes on Friday night.
The atrocious conditions made territory a priority, and it was the Chiefs who employed a more successful kicking game to keep the Hurricanes pinned in their own half.
Tries to Brodie Retallick and Toni Pulu gave them a 17-6 halftime buffer, before the Hurricanes produced a late rally to close the final margin to eight points.
To make matters worse for the Hurricanes, fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder went down with a leg injury and had to be assisted from the field, only three games into his return from a serious shoulder injury.
He was due to have a scan to determine the seriousness of the injury yesterday afternoon.