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Crusaders end 5-match losing streak and Rebels beat Waratahs in Super Rugby Pacific

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand (AP) — Former Wales winger Johnny McNicholl scored a try in each half Friday as the Christchurch-based Crusaders ended a five-match losing start to the Super Rugby Pacific season with a 37-26 win over the Chiefs.

McNicholl scored the second try for the Crusaders, who led 22-12 at halftime, and then ran 70 meters for an intercept try in the 63rd minute with the lead threatened at 27-19.

In the second match of the day at Sydney, the Melbourne Rebels scored three tries in the final 14 minutes to beat New South Wales 27-21, handing the Waratahs their fifth loss in six matches. It was the Rebels’ first away win against an Australian team since April 2022, which came against the Western Force in Perth.

The McNicholl try at Christchurch marked a turning point for the Crusaders who had began to look under pressure for the first time in the match and seemed in danger of slipping to their sixth successive loss. With McNicholl's score they enjoyed the breathing space of a 15-point lead.

The importance of that buffer was made clearer when the Chiefs scored soon after, cutting the lead to 34-26.

Tested again, the Crusaders responded and won a penalty for a high tackle which gave them the 11-point lead they carried to fulltime.

“It’s amazing. The boys fronted tonight,” Crusaders captain Tom Christie said. “One through 23, they lifted tonight from what we’ve had in the past. It just shows, a little bit of adversity we stuck together. There’s a long way to go yet, we can acknowledge that, but it was a step in the right direction.”

Christie was part of the story of the match and the way in which the Crusaders managed to finally overcome numerous setbacks. Their season has been blighted by injuries, including those to All Blacks fullback Will Jordan and former Wales international Leigh Halfpenny before a match had been played.

Injuries have continued to mount, most recently to All Blacks center David Havili who had inherited the captaincy from Scott Barrett when Barrett suffered a broken finger.

Mitch Drummond was meant to lead the Crusaders on Saturday but he was forced to withdraw with an illness shortly before kickoff and the leadership fell for the first time to Christie.

“I think we just had a sense of freedom,” Christie said. “Obviously there’s been a bit in the media if you chose to read it. The shackles were off. It took a bit of pressure off and we just came out here and played Crusaders rugby. We showed when we get it right we’re a dangerous team.”

The Crusaders have struggled at set pieces, especially at lineouts this season which has blunted their game. They gave up nine lineouts against the throw in last weekend’s 26-6 loss to the Auckland-based Blues.

McNicholl was an energetic addition to the Crusaders attack. He played for the Crusaders before leaving for Britain where he was capped 12 times by Wales. Saturday’s match was his first home match in Christchurch in eight years.

McNicholl scored his first try in the 12th minute after an opening try to Chay Fihaki. Emoni Narawa and George Bell scored for the Chiefs before halftime and the Crusaders scored again through Cullen Grance

The Crusaders started the second half with an extraordinary try to hooker George Bell who was put into a gap in the Chiefs’ backline with a short pass from flyhalf Riley Hohepa. He showed pace on an angled run to the left corner.

After a try to Anton Lienert-Brown for the Chiefs, McNicholl’s second try swung the match in favor of the Crusaders.

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AP rugby: https://apnews.com/hub/rugby