WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — South Africa's Lions took over as the new overall leaders of Super Rugby after the Melbourne-based Rebels suffered their first loss of the season on Sunday.
Finalists in each of the past two years, the Lions registered their fourth win from five outings with a hard-fought 40-38 over the Japan-based Sunwolves in Johannesburg on Saturday to move to the top of the standings.
The Rebels looked to be on course for their fourth straight win when they led New South Wales 20-3 after 37 minutes before falling apart in the second half and losing 51-27 in the Australian derby match.
That left the Highlanders as the only unbeaten team after five rounds of the competition, although the Highlanders have only played three matches so far.
The Dunedin-based team surged to the top of the New Zealand conference standings with a 25-17 win on Saturday over the Crusaders, the defending champions who lost for the second week in a row.
The Waratahs, meanwhile, scored six tries in their impressive comeback win over the Rebels in Sydney.
"We put a lot of pressure on them in the first half," Waratahs captain Michael Hooper said. "We let in some easy tries but we knew there was something building.
"That was our focus from halftime, come out and see what we could do under the high ball. Bernard (Foley) was amazing and Israel (Folau) and (Kurtley Beale) led us and were fantastic."
The Rebels raced to a 14-point lead just before the halftime break after scoring three tries of their own but could not contain the Waratahs in the second half as NSW piled on 41 points after the break.
"I think the Waratahs really capitalized on our errors, really plugged the corners well and got us turning round and unfortunately we couldn't swing the momentum in the second half," Rebels captain Adam Coleman said.
The Rebels remain on top of the Australian conference standings, three points clear of Queensland, who beat Argentina's Jaguares 18-7 for their third win in a row. Australia ACT Brumbies posted their second win of the season by beating the South Africa-based Sharks 24-17.
The Highlanders scored three tries to two against the Crusaders, including one while they were reduced to 14 men by the sin-binning of All Blacks winger Waisake Naholo.
The Crusaders had a try by backrower Jordan Taufua disallowed before halftime when the video referee detected a knock-on.
That try might have given the Crusaders a lead at the break. Instead, they went to halftime trailing 14-10 and the Highlanders were able to open a nine-point advantage with a try in the 50th minute from flanker Elliot Dixon.
"I have to take the eye patch off, really, but I saw it on the highlights reel after the game and I thought it was a try," Crusaders assistant coach Brad Mooar said.
The Crusaders slipped back to third place in the New Zealand conference standings behind the Highlanders and the Hurricanes, who had the bye.
The Chiefs beat the Bulls 41-28 on Friday to win their second of three games while the Stormers returned home after losing three on the road to defeat the Auckland-based Blues 37-20 in Cape Town.
"We didn't get the outcome we were looking for," Blues coach Tana Umaga said. "We lacked urgency in a lot of facets of our game. We made a lot of errors. We talked about executing this week and trying to stop giving teams such a head start yet we weren't able to do that."
In Johannesburg, Kazuki Himeno's 59th-minute try, the fourth from the Sunwolves, gave the visitors a 31-26 lead going into the final quarter.
Malcolm Marx put the Lions back ahead a couple of minutes later from a maul, a favored Lions tactic that the Sunwolves had successfully neutralized up to that point. Replacement center Rohan Janse van Rensburg dived over 10 minutes later for the Lions' sixth try, ensuring another try by the Sunwolves on the fulltime hooter by Atsushi Sakate didn't matter.
For the Lions, relief rather than elation was the overriding emotion at the end as the home team didn't celebrate.
"We got the win and we're grateful for it but disappointed with a few things as well," Lions hooker Marx said.