Blues hold off determined Moana Pasifika despite Nepo Laulala red card
Four days after their historic victory over the Hurricanes, Moana Pasifika have fallen to the Blues in Super Rugby Pacific’s first Auckland derby.
Riding high on the wave of their first-ever win in their brief history on Friday, Moana Pasifika produced another gallant effort against their more favoured and more resourced cross-town neighbours.
That wasn’t enough to register back-to-back victories at Mt Smart Stadium on Tuesday, though, as the Blues emphasised their depth of class and quality after having made 14 changes to their starting lineup from Saturday’s win over the Highlanders.
Moana Pasifika initially made the same number of changes to their starting team, but they ended up fielding an entirely overhauled run-on team when second-five Henry Taefu was one of three late withdrawals shortly before kick-off.
In his place came former NRL and Brumbies star Solomone Kata for his Moana Pasifika debut, and Kata’s spot on the bench was taken by ex-Brumbies flyer Nigel Ah Wong.
Maori All Blacks veteran Joe Royal and Manu Samoa halfback Dwayne Polataivao also replaced Ray Niuia and Manu Paea on the bench, respectively, leaving Moana Pasifika with a whopping 14 debutants in their match day squad.
Such vast inexperience – combined with late disruptions, which was amplified by the early absence of captain Jack Lam due to a head injury assessment (that he passed) – left the hosts ill-equipped to deal with the might of the Blues.
Even without an array of their headline acts, leaving them with four debutants and 14 players with 10 Super Rugby caps or fewer, Leon MacDonald’s side still cut an imposing figure.
The presence of All Blacks props Alex Hodgman and Nepo Laulala in their starting team wreaked havoc with Moana Pasifika’s scrum, resulting in penalty after penalty to piggyback the Blues down the park.
Despite some committed defence, another shaky Moana Pasifika scrum after forcing a spillage out of Stephen Perofeta enabled the Blues to pounce.
Hodgman, Laulala and the entire Blues forward pack demolished their counterparts, allowing midfielder Tamati Tua latched onto the ball and score his first Super Rugby try in his second match, which came four years after his debut.
Some smart territorial play and a conscious effort to keep the ball alive and play an upbeat brand of rugby enabled the Blues to extend their lead.
Quick lineouts and persistent offloading ensured the Blues kept Moana Pasifika pegged inside their own 22, and Lincoln McClutchie struggled to relieve pressure as the Blues’ outside backs – AJ Lam, Mark Telea and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens – continually kept their opponents on edge.
All of that culminated in an attacking opportunity in the form of a five-metre lineout, which yielded a Ricky Riccitelli try, the first of two scored by the ex-Hurricanes hooker before the half-time siren.
That put the Blues in a comfortable 19-0 lead with five minutes until the break, but Moana Pasifika cut that deficit by rolling their sleeves up and rumbling over for a try to ex-Blues rake Lutery Tolai from a close range lineout.
Their lineout proved to be the catalyst for a second half fightback, which was sparked by what appeared to be a try to Kata in the opening moments of the second stanza until officials ruled that he was held up.
Not to be deterred by that call, Moana Pasifika threw wave after wave of attack at the Blues in the minutes after Kata’s disallowed try, utilising the lineout to great effect.
Aaron Mauger’s men soon reaped their desired rewards when loosehead prop Abraham Pole crashed over for another try on debut after having scored against Moana Pasifika in his Super Rugby Pacific debut for the Crusaders three-and-a-half weeks ago.
That brought Moana Pasifika to within touching distance, and just a few minutes after that, Tolai seemed to have bagged a brace after his side again opted to attack the Blues via their lineout.
However, a review by the television match official denied Tolai his second try against his former team, much to the dismay of the boisterous home crowd.
Another attempt to roll over the tryline from the back of a maul was then quashed by the Blues, who then looked to give Moana Pasifika a taste of their own medicine by having a crack at the line from a close range lineout after hoofing the ball downfield.
Consultation from the television match official resulted in a try being awarded to stand-in Blues captain Luke Romano, giving his side some breathing room as the match headed into its final quarter.
Whatever advantage the Blues had from that try, though, evaporated almost instantly when Laulala was sent off for a reckless clean out at a ruck, where his shoulder connected with the head of Moana Pasifika centre Fine Inisi.
That indiscretion paved the way for Moana Pasifika to turn to their maul yet again, and with a penalty advantage from the ensuing rolling maul, McClutchie lofted a hit-and-hope cross-kick to Manu Samoa wing Tomasi Alosio.
The Moana Pasifika debutant soared above Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens to make a spectacular catch any NRL player who has previously graced Mt Smart Stadium would be proud of and score a superb try.
Trailing by only five points with one extra man on the park, there was a sense that Moana Pasifika knew they were on the cusp of securing the unlikeliest of successive wins.
The crowd knew it too, and that was reflected by their excitement when Moana Pasifika wing Anzelo Tuitavuki broke down the left-hand flank, only to disappoint when he was bundled into touch after failing to capitalise on a multi-man overlap.
Had he taken advantage of that numerical mismatch, the result very well could have been different, but the Blues made no mistake about consolidating their lead when handed the chance after Tuitavuki’s lapse in judgement.
A Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens line break got the Blues in a dangerous position deep inside enemy territory, and reserve halfback Finlay Christie was clinical in his effort to dot down from a matter of centimetres away.
Things began to slip away from Moana Pasifika from that point onwards, as a penalty conceded by reserve prop Chris Apoua with a handful of minutes to play gift-wrapped an easy three points for Perofeta.
That ballooned the scoreline out to gap that was too far for Moana Pasifika to bridge in the dying stages of the contest, but there is plenty for them to be pleased about.
A strong showing by much of the squad’s second-string and injury replacement players indicates there is some depth within the Moana Pasifika set-up, while the emergence of their lineout as a genuine attacking weapon is miles ahead of where they were just weeks ago.
The Blues, meanwhile, will be content to have banked an expected victory that moves them into the top four on the competition standings four days out from their rematch with Moana Pasifika at Eden Park this weekend.
Their ability to also close out the match with only 14 men on the park will also get the tick of approval from MacDonald, as will the long-awaited injury return from All Blacks prop Karl Tu’inukuafe, who featured in the final four minutes.
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