Hurricanes make early statement in Super Rugby title defense

Japan's Shota Emi of the Sunwolves runs with the ball while South Africa's Ross Geldenhuys of the Southern Kings tackles him during their Super Rugby match on Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Singapore. (AP Photo/Joseph Nair)

The Hurricanes provided more evidence their defense of the Super Rugby title will be a stern one when they crushed the Melbourne Rebels 71-6 in round two on Saturday.

That convincing result for the Wellington-based side meant it has scored 24 tries and 154 points in its opening two games, some statement to start the season.

In other eye-catching performances, the Crusaders came back from a 21-point deficit and scored two tries in the last five minutes to beat the Highlanders in their New Zealand derby. Also, South Africa’s Sharks won in Australia, edging the ACT Brumbies 27-22 with their own late try, this one a minute after the final hooter and after the Sharks trailed 15-3.

Among the seven games in four countries: South Africa’s Southern Kings secured a rare win by beating Japan’s Sunwolves, a fellow struggler, 37-23 in Singapore. After a lackluster opening game, last season’s runner-up got going with the Lions romping over New South Wales Waratahs 55-36 in Johannesburg in a game featuring 13 tries and three yellow cards.

The Cape Town-based Stormers avoided what would have been a major surprise by holding off Argentina’s Jaguares 32-25, with the fast-improving Jaguares always in the game despite two yellow cards and playing with 13 men for a period in the second half.

The Cheetahs hung on to beat the Bulls 34-28 to end the round.

The Hurricanes and Chiefs are tied at the top of the New Zealand conference, Western Force is the surprise leader of the Australian conference, and the Stormers and Lions lead Africa 1 and Africa 2 respectively.

The Hurricanes opened their defense with an 83-17 win over the Sunwolves and followed that 13-try performance with an 11-tries-to-nil victory over Melbourne.

All Blacks winger Nehe Milner-Skudder scored three tries in his return after an almost 18-month absence through injury, while winger Vince Aso and center Ngani Laumape had two tries each to overwhelm the Rebels, who lost to the Auckland-based Blues 56-18 in the first round.

While the Hurricanes have beaten two of the weakest teams, away first-up and at home on Saturday, it was the manner rather than the margin of the latest win that was impressive. After trailing 6-0, the Hurricanes dominated every aspect and launched try-scoring movements from any part of the field.

In Dunedin, winger Seta Tamanivalu scored the winning try for the visiting Crusaders with just over a minute left on the clock as the seven-time champions exploited a one-man advantage after Highlanders center Malakai Fekitoa was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle.

Winger Waisake Naholo scored two tries and had a hand in a third as the Highlanders opened a 21-point lead just after halftime, but the Crusaders came surging back to improve to 2-0. The Highlanders, the 2015 champions, are 0-2.

The Canberra-based Brumbies are another former title-winner making a slow start, losing to the Sharks on a try well after the hooter. At 22-22, Sharks replacement Curwin Bosch put through a kick that surprised the Brumbies defenders and center Lukhanyo Am dived on the loose ball.

”We’re over the moon to get the win,” Sharks captain Patrick Lambie said. ”We couldn’t quite put the Brumbies away and thankfully we were the ones who scored last.”

The Lions scored four tries in the first 24 minutes against the Waratahs and went on to pass 50 points against the visiting Australian side, which was missing Wallabies Bernard Foley, Nick Phipps and Will Skelton through injury. Three of the Lions’ eight tries came from rolling mauls.

As they did so often in their debut season in Super Rugby last year, the Jaguares undid all their hard work with poor discipline, losing two players to yellow cards in the decisive moments of the second half that took away their momentum and allowed the Stormers to hang on for 32-25 and their second straight victory of the season at home at Newlands.

Like the Highlanders and Brumbies, the Bulls are another former champion yet to win in 2017 after the loss to the Cheetahs away in Bloemfontein.

AP Sports Writers Dennis Passa in Gold Coast, Australia, and Gerald Imray in Somerset West, South Africa, contributed.