- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

Having failed to win any of its first five matches in Super Rugby this season, Queensland seemed an unlikely candidate to challenge New Zealand teams’ domination of the southern hemisphere tournament.

But the Reds’ 28-27 win over defending champions the Highlanders in Brisbane on Saturday delivered that challenge and represented only the third win in seven rounds this season by an Australian, South African, Japanese or Argentinian team over a New Zealand opponent.

The Hamilton-based Chiefs, who had suffered that rare fate when they lost to the Lions in round two, remain atop the table, posting five straight wins since that loss to the Lions. They extended their lead at the top to six points by beating the Blues 29-23 while the Highlanders lost and South Africa’s Stormers had a bye.

Four of the top five rungs of the ladder are occupied by New Zealand teams: the Chiefs (29 points) in first place, the Highlanders (23 points) joint second with the Stormers, the Crusaders (22 points) fourth and the Hurricanes (20 points) fifth.

New Zealand teams have won 16 of 20 matches against overseas opponents. The Reds’ success on Saturday against a fast-finishing Highlanders, gave some hope of repairing the imbalance.

New Zealand rugby was considered in something of a rebuild mode due to the retirement of key players since the World Cup, but the nation has quickly regenerated with some impressive new talent.

The Chiefs have achieved their 6-1 record this season despite having as many as 12 frontline players sidelined with injuries.

They have still managed to score 39 tries in their matches so far and the leading contributors to that tally have been fullback Damian McKenzie, center Charlie Ngatai and winger James Lowe who will have been little known outside New Zealand before this season.

The Highlanders have also won five of seven matches while also carrying a heavy injury toll, most recently losing fullback Ben Smith to concussion while the Hurricanes have made good despite the loss of the Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith midfield pairing. The Crusaders still have a strong forward pack but have lost Richie McCaw and Dan Carter among other notable departures.

The Chiefs struggled to beat the Blues at Hamilton on Friday, though they still outscored their opponents by five tries to two. The Hurricanes scored six tries to three - with a hat trick to winger Julian Savea - in beating Argentina’s Jaguares 40-22 on Saturday. And the Crusaders needed a last-minute try to beat the Western Force 20-19 in Perth but they still achieved a win which left them unbeaten on their tour to South Africa and Australia.

It still appears that the biggest danger to New Zealand teams is from other New Zealand teams and it may be the highly competitive nature of the New Zealand conference that begins to tell physically on those teams as the season continues.

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