The gap between the haves and have-nots in Super Rugby, between the winners and the strugglers, grew more stark with the tournament only a third of the way through after the weekend's seventh round.
The ACT Brumbies, with a penalty after the final siren, and the Hamilton-based Chiefs, in a ferocious derby with the Auckland-based Blues, won again to preserve their leads in the Australian and New Zealand conferences while the Durban-based Sharks stayed atop the South African conference without playing.
The fourth-placed Queensland Reds, fifth-placed Crusaders, sixth-placed Cheetahs and seventh-placed Hurricanes were also winners as all teams in the top half of the competition moved up.
But not one of the teams placed eighth or below had won ahead of Sunday's clash between the 11-placed New South Wales Waratahs and 12th-placed Western Force.
The eighth-placed Blues, who fell to the Chiefs, the ninth-placed Bulls, edged by the Brumbies, the 10th-placed Stormers, held out by the understrength Crusaders, the 13th-placed Rebels, beaten by the Cheetahs, and the 14th-placed Southern Kings, defeated by the Hurricanes, all stumbled further into negative territory.
At the very bottom of the competition, the Dunedin-based Highlanders strongly favored to prosper after attracting a bevy of star players in the offseason remained without a win after five games, probably already out of playoffs contention.
The weekend results, which so clearly separated the top and bottom teams, pointed to a two-tiered split southern hemisphere competition, though it still has almost four months to run.
Once again, the leading teams found the means to win even in the most difficult circumstances. The Brumbies seemed headed at best for a draw until flyhalf Christian Leali'ifano drilled a penalty in stoppage time to give them a 23-20 win over the Bulls.
The Bulls had scored only two minutes from fulltime to tie the score at 20-20, then reclaimed possession from the kickoff and looked likely to play out time. But scrumhalf Nic White won a contentious penalty and Leali'ifano nailed the winning goal from 42 meters, improving the Brumbies' record to 5-1 and leaving the Bulls 3-3 in mid-table.
The Brumbies were coming off their first loss of the season, to the Stormers in Cape Town last weekend, and coach Jake White was pleased his team was able to avoid a second loss in challenging circumstances.
"What I'm really proud about is that this team has shown we can win the tight ones,'' White said. "It's such a tough comp, sometimes you have to grind wins out like that. It's a massive learning curve for everyone. You have to make sure you adapt your game according to who you're playing against.''
But angry Bulls coach Frans Ludeke believed the Brumbies' last penalty was wrongly awarded, as they were ``clearly offside, we've looked at it.''
"That's life, we don't want to give it (the penalty) energy. They can't take away our effort,'' Ludeke said.
The Chiefs also showed the characteristics of a champion team when they held off a stiff challenge from the Blues to win 23-16 in one of New Zealand's most celebrated derbies. Though they enjoyed more than 70 percent of territory in the first half, the Chiefs led by only 9-6 on penalties at halftime.
Second-half tries to giant prop Ben Tameifuna and All Blacks center Richard Kahui gave the Chiefs breathing space, before the Blues closed with a late try and conversion to grab a consolation bonus point.
"The attitude was fantastic,'' Chiefs coach Dave Rennie said. "We had a lot of setbacks in the first half with tries disallowed and the sin-binning (of center Bundee Aki) but the boys showed a lot of composure to get through to halftime.
"I thought we controlled the first 20 of the second half well, played at the right end of the field and put a lot of pressure on. From an intensity point of view, it's building. It certainly wasn't perfect but this was two teams going pretty hard at each other.''
The seven-time champion Crusaders defended their line courageously through the last five minutes to hold on to a 19-14 win over the Stormers. The Christchurch-based Crusaders were playing without their injured captain Keiran Read and backline stars Dan Carter, whose wife gave birth to their first child on Friday, and Israel Dagg, sidelined at the last minute with a hamstring strain.
They lost All Blacks prop Owen Franks early in the match but were still able to rally from 11-0 down to lead 13-11 at halftime. The Stormers attacked the Crusaders' line relentlessly through the final minutes of the match but the Crusaders defended tenaciously.
"We were under the pump early and we knew that we just had to suck it in and keep sticking at our game, just hold a bit of ball,'' stand-in captain George Whitelock said. "We slowly wore them down and in the second half we were in control for most of it.''
The Reds posted their first-ever win in Dunedin when they beat the Highlanders 34-33 on Friday, clinging to their one-point margin for the last eight minutes after the home team mounted a strong late comeback.
The Cheetahs scored their fourth straight win in beating the Rebels 34-16 at Bloemfontein.
Despite the difficulties posed by persistent rain, the home side ran in five tries to grab a handy bonus point against a Rebels team that will be relieved to be heading back to Australia after a disastrous tour of South Africa.
The Melbourne side leave having conceded 15 tries and 101 points in two games, and created headlines for a fistfight between disgraced Wallabies Kurtley Beale and Cooper Vuna.
The Hurricanes bagged a four-try bonus point before halftime but needed two second-half tries to clinch a 46-30 win over the competitive Southern Kings at Wellington.