WELLINGTON, New Zealand -- South Africa's Sharks and defending champions the Chiefs remained the only unbeaten teams in Super Rugby after a fifth round which featured a storm of yellow cards and cliff-hanger endings.
The Durban-based Sharks withstood a furious second-half fightback to beat the Queensland Reds 35-20 for a fourth straight win which gave them a five-point lead atop the championship table.
The Hamilton-based Chiefs scored two late tries to beat the Cape Town-based Stormers 36-20 for their third win, after the Stormers rallied from 24-6 down to 24-20 with six minutes remaining.
The ACT Brumbies, reduced to 14 men for almost 20 minutes, held on to beat the New South Wales Waratahs 28-23 in a gripping Australian derby, inflicting the Waratahs' first loss in three games.
In Dunedin, the Western Force were reduced to 13 men for the last eight minutes but clung on to beat the Highlanders 31-29 for their second straight bonus-point victory. Replacement flyhalf Hayden Parker scored a last-minute try for the Highlanders but missed the conversion, allowing the Force to claim back-to-back wins for the first time since April 2011.
The Auckland-based Blues scored 36 second-half points in the most remarkable comeback of the round but still went down 39-36 to the Lions in Johannesburg, to be left with only one win from four matches. The Blues had two players sin-binned during the second half.
In Wellington, the Hurricanes overran the Cheetahs 60-27, by nine tries to three, to capture their first win of the season in a match in which defences were either inept or non-existent. The match featured the most bizarre sin-binning of the round -- Cheetahs fullback Willie Le Roux was shown a yellow card in the 43rd minute for a deliberate knock-on, though it seemed perfectly apparent he had attempted an intercept.
The flurry of yellow cards and a number of other contentious decisions again focused attention on the poor or inconsistent standard of refereeing, which continues to frustrate coaches and players. Scrums remain a particular area of frustration but there have been wider concerns about the failure of referees to spot glaring infringements -- notably in a critical try for the Lions against the Blues which came from a knock-on.
Players and coaches must also answer for a lack of structure and the poor quality of fundamental skills in many matches -- the rates of turnovers and handling errors are higher than even early season glitches can excuse. The match between the Hurricanes and Cheetahs was a free-for-all that lacked any structure and in which tackles were not only regularly missed but often not even attempted.
The Brumbies showed the value of a well-organized defence in their win over the Waratahs. Though they conceded 14 late points, they were still able to hold on while a man short to post their third win from four games and to move to the top of the Australian conference. Flanker Scott Fardy and flyhalf Matt Toomua were leaders of an outstanding Brumbies defensive effort.
Brumbies captain Ben Mowen said he was disappointed his team lost two players to yellow cards, requiring it to play most of the last 20 minutes with 14.
"Discipline goes hand in hand with how we want to play," he said. "That's not something you can do regularly and expect to get a result."
The Sharks benefitted from a yellow card in beating the Reds after leading 25-6 at halftime. Queensland dominated a half during which it remained parked in Sharks territory but the sin-binning of Beau Robinson allowed the Sharks to score a converted try three minutes from fulltime to clinch the match.
"We gave the Sharks some ball position and some ill-discipline really cost us - they've got some great goalkickers and that showed on the scoreboard," Reds captain James Horwill said.
The Chiefs again showed they are the best-coached team in New Zealand with their win over the Stormers. They scored five tries, including one to Tanerau Latimer in his 100th match, as coach Dave Rennie and his assistants devised a method to break down the Stormers' formidable defence.
"It's pretty exciting when you do a lot of analysis during the week and you see certain pictures that the defence gives you and you are able to exploit it right up the field," Chiefs co-captain Aaron Cruden said.
"We made most of our best gains deep in our half as opposed to closer to their line. It was nice to step up."