James O’Connor kicked 11 points as the Queensland Reds ended ACT Brumbies’ unbeaten start to the Super Rugby Pacific season, while the Canterbury Crusaders kept up the pressure at the top with a narrow victory over the Otago Highlanders.

Reds’ convincing 21-7 win in Brisbane drew them level with the Canberra-based Brumbies at the top of the 12-team table on 26 points.

The 12-time champion Crusaders are three adrift, but with a game in hand, after inflicting a sixth straight defeat on Aaron Smith’s Highlanders in a nail-biting 17-14 triumph.

Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper, made a successful return for the NSW Waratahs, scoring a try after coming on as a substitute in his first match for the team since suffering a foot injury against England at Twickenham last November.

The Reds defied a red card to Tuaina Tualima for a high hit on O’Connor to beat the Brumbies with Fraser McReight scoring a try during the 20 minutes they were down to 14 men.

Winger Filipo Daugunu also banked five points with O’Connor’s three penalties and a conversion ensuring the win.

But there were also plenty of missed chances. “We left a lot of points out there,” said Reds coach Brad Thorn.

His opposite number Dan McKellar was more blunt, calling Brumbies’ performance “dreadful”.

“I don’t think it was a very good game of footy . . . I get really frustrated with people who bag the game but I think both teams will review that and understand we need to be a whole lot better,” he said.

“It was a heck of a battle,” said Crusaders captain Scott Barrett, whose team endured heavy pressure in the second half.

The Auckland Blues are fourth, a point behind the Crusaders, after two wins over Moana Pasifika in the space of five days. The Blues also have a game in hand on the Reds and Brumbies.

They toppled the Pacific island newcomers 32-19 in a rearranged midweek match after their original clash was postponed early in the season because of Covid, then turned the screws with a 46-16 hammering on Saturday.