Gritty, not pretty, but the Blues will glady take it.
No win in South Africa can be scoffed at, especially when you’ve won three of the past 14 matches there.
This 23-21 victory, in which the Blues scored three-tries-to-one and pedantic South African referee Marius van der Westhuizen dished out four yellow cards, won’t go down as one of the most aesthetically pleasing.
But in the context of the Blues season, it sure is important.
Blues first five-eighth Otere Black, in his first game of the season after returning from a rib injury, stepped up in the final minute to knock over a 30-metre penalty and turn match-winner.
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This was a game that, in previous years, the Blues would have undoubtedly folded after falling behind late. Instead they showed character to hang tough and fight to the final whistle to steal a valuable win away from home.
Prior to Black’s ice-cool strike, it seemed the Bulls would cling on for their first win of the season.
Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu again performed strongly but his yellow card for an apparent high tackle led to Bulls flanker Jeandré Rudolph crashing over to establish a one-point lead with eight minutes remaining.
The Blues stoically defended their line and then won a turnover to work their way downfield, where they earned the penalty which gave Black the chance to slot the winner.
Needing to respond after their 17-point loss to the Crusaders at Eden Park last week, the Blues banked their second away win of the year after knocking over the Waratahs in Sydney.
This result leaves their season evenly poised, rather than on the ropes, after two wins from four games, as they await Beauden Barrett’s first appearance in mid-April.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 22, 2020
Sotutu and Patrick Tuipulotu produced busy performances in the Blues pack but Tom Robinson, starting in his preferred blindside role, was the standout.
Whether it was taking lineouts, carrying or defending Robinson made his presence felt. His typically high work-rate brought reward in the form of a second-half try when driving over with assistance.
Stephen Perofeta continued his form with another assured display from fullback.
Perofeta was safe under the high ball, had intelligent touches coming into the line and he held Matt Duffie’s offload – after his brilliant grab from a cross-field kick– to claim the Blues third try.
Black’s steady influence from first receiver was also clear. Harry Plummer, moved to second-five, was much less influential and it would be a surprise if he starts there next week.
Heavy rain in Pretoria left the sodden Loftus Versfeld pitch cutting up rough throughout and the ball greasy which made handling difficult. Both elements contributed to a scrappy spectacle, featuring frequent messy scrums, played in front of few locals.
The Blues enjoyed a two-man advantage during the first half after successive yellow cards to Bulls lock Andries Ferreira, for repeat team infringements, and captain Burger Odendaal after his shoulder collided with the head of rookie Blues wing Emoni Narawa.
Had Narawa not been ducking after taking a high ball, Odendaal would almost certainly been red carded for the incident.
Despite their numerical advantage, the Blues struggled to capitalise. For extended periods they thumped away at the Bulls line with little success until the ball was slung wide to Mark Telea, the wing showing impressive upper body strength and skill to score the opening try while holding off two defenders.
Bulls wing Rosko Specman, the South African sevens star, was denied a try after his foot was in touch. He and Cornal Hendricks regularly threatened on the edge, finding success by getting outside and in behind the Blues defence.
Just before half time Blues halfback Jonathan Ruru was the next player sent to the bin for cynically killing the ball five metres out from his line following a break from the Bulls. Straight after, Morne Steyn scored the Bulls first try of the season to give his side their 11-8 lead at the break.
Former Springboks playmaker Steyn, now 35, extended the Bulls lead after halftime and pushed his personal tally out to 14 points.
But after Rudolph’s try, it was the Blues who had the final say.
It doesn’t get any easier for the Blues next week with the unbeaten Stormers looming in Cape Town.
This result, though, and the return of Rieko Ioane, will boost confidence that they can compete.
The one blow the Blues did suffer was losing hooker James Parsons who left the field late clutching his shoulder in what looked a serious injury.
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