* McCaw ruck infringement robs Crusaders of victory
* Reds captain James Horwill celebrates birthday win
(adds details, quotes)
Quade Cooper booted a last-minute penalty to allow the table-topping Queensland Reds to snatch a 17-16 victory over seven-time champions the Canterbury Crusaders in a pulsating Super rugby tie in Brisbane on Sunday.
Canterbury captain Richie McCaw was penalised for using his hands in a ruck deep in Crusaders' territory, directly in front of the posts, and the Reds flyhalf nervelessly split the middle to the delight of a parochial crowd of 48,000 at Lang Park.
In a match billed as a World Cup preview between New Zealand and Australia's chief playmakers, Dan Carter had the measure of counterpart Cooper for much of the match, and booted two late penalties to put the Crusaders two points ahead with seven minutes left.
However, Cooper had the final say, slotting home the winning kick seconds before the hooter after missing all three of his previous penalty attempts.
McCaw, whose side was punished by Australian referee Stu Dickinson for ill-discipline throughout, was left to rue his lapse that ultimately cost his side the match.
"You can't afford to do that, can you?" the All Black skipper said in a televised interview.
"It was a good old match... I thought we played some pretty smart rugby, especially in the first half. We perhaps didn't get the reward we could have got... But yeah, you can't afford to be ill-disciplined."
The result firms Queensland's position at top of the standings and leaves the Crusaders fourth in the table, well in contention for a playoff berth with three rounds of the regular season remaining.
The Crusaders had the best of a frenetic first half, counter-rucking furiously and forcing a nervous Reds lineup into a raft of handling errors.
Carter booted a penalty for the match's first score after the Crusaders' bullied their opponents in a scrum, but the Reds steadied with a try to inside centre Ben Tapuai that had the visiting fans howling injustice.
After receiving from captain James Horwill at the back of a lineout near the Crusaders' 22-yard line, scrumhalf Will Genia appeared to slip a forward pass to Tapuai who gleefully crossed left of the posts in the 22nd minute.
Unfazed, the Crusaders hit back seven minutes later through a piece of individual brilliance from Carter.
The All Black flyhalf ripped the ball out of outside centre Anthony Faingaa's grasp in a tackle, then fed Robbie Fruean, who burst through the Reds line and sprinted 40 metres before off-loading to winger Brent Ward to touch down in the right corner.
The Crusaders' smothering pressure appeared to tell on the more inexperienced Reds, with hooker Saia Faingaa making a mess of his line-out throws and Cooper spraying three penalty kicks to allow the visitors a 10-7 lead at the break.
A more composed Reds side emerged in the second half and the enterprising Genia stole back the lead after a rare lapse by the Crusaders forwards.
After losing a scrum on the right wing, the Crusaders' pack were slow to their feet, allowing Genia to snatch the ball from a ruck and charge into space at the right corner for the Reds' second try in the 45th minute.
Cooper overcame his kicking wobbles to convert and put the Reds 14-10 up.
The game descended into a grim arm wrestle for the next 20 minutes before the Crusaders ratcheted up the pressure again, winning a penalty for offside after a seven-phase assault on the try-line.
Carter's straight kick trimmed the deficit to a point with 11 minutes left, and swung the momentum firmly back to the Crusaders.
With the hosts clearly tiring, the Crusaders forwards battered the Reds forward pack, winning a second penalty kick in the 74th minute to snatch the lead back and set the match up for its dramatic finale.
After Cooper's penalty goal, Carter sent the re-start kick into Genia's arms and the scrumhalf booted the ball into touch to seal the win and hand his captain a welcome 26th birthday gift.
"Probably the best birthday present I've received in this world... it was a good night," a thrilled Horwill said.
"We know the Crusaders are a quality side... We knew they'd keep coming, but credit to the boys, we just kept going."
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