Blues hold off late Chiefs fightback to secure win and stay in hunt for Super Rugby Aotearoa title
Another day, another tense Super Rugby Aotearoa derby that extends the Chiefs’ losing run as they fell to their northern rivals, the Blues, 21-17 at Eden Park in Auckland.
It was the Blues’ defence in the final minute of the match that effectively won them the contest that was doinated by both forward packs, with the front rows on either side of the scrum putting in an admirable display.
A stunningly deceptive set play move off the back of a scrum, though, saw newly-instated Blues fullback Matt Duffie scorch through the Chiefs’ defence to score the opening try inside the first 10 minutes.
The running angle made by the former NRL star played a key role in wrong-footing the opposition defensive line, but so did the silky distribution skills of Rieko Ioane, whose credentials as a midfielder continue to flourish.
The hosts doubled their lead another seven minutes later when a string of phases built too much pressure for the Chiefs’ defence to contain.
Ploughing their way deep into enemy territory up front, skipper Patrick Tuipulotu crashed over to reap the rewards from his forward pack’s dominant ball-carrying.
It only took about five minutes for the Chiefs to strike back, though, as a slew of penalties were called against the Blues to put the visitors in a handy spot inside the home side’s red zone.
A steady stream of carries allowed the Chiefs to capitalise just as the Blues did moments earlier, with in-form flanker Lachlan Boshier rumbling over close to the posts off a flick ball made by Pita Gus Sowakula.
The visitors were presented with an unlikely opportunity to level the scores when young first-five Kaleb Trask struggled to judge the flight of the wind when kicking for touch off another Blues penalty.
Electric wing Mark Telea was able to keep the ball in play by swatting it back in-field from the sideline, but with no support around him, his opposite Solomon Alaimalo scooped up the loose pill and cantered towards the Blues’ tryline.
A last-ditch defensive effort prevented him from dotting down initially, but a looping forward pass by Damian McKenzie killed any chance of capping off the exciting sequence of play.
McKenzie almost made amends just a minute or so later when he splintered the Blues’ defence with his rapid acceleration, but some strong work at the breakdown ensured the Chiefs were held out.
Down by a converted try at the break, Chiefs boss Warren Gatland decided to throw experienced playmaker Aaron Cruden into the mix in place of Trask.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 26, 2020
That tactical switch soon paid dividends, as the 31-year-old teamed up with Brad Weber to spurn something out of nothing in the opening 10 minutes.
Gliding through a pair of Blues defenders, Cruden set Lienert-Brown away down the left wing, and the No.13 in turn found Alaimalo, who injured himself while diving to score the levelling try in the left corner.
A penalty goal from out in front by McKenzie then handed the Chiefs a three-point lead just a few minutes later, with Cruden’s impact beginning to take its toll on the clash.
The Blues, however, refused to lie down, as a rampaging Ofa Tu’ungafasi laid the foundations for a Finlay Christie try via a barnstorming run around the fringes of a breakdown.
Tuipulotu threatened to double down on Tu’ungafasi’s efforts, but some hefty tackling by Lienert-Brown on his own tryline spared the Chiefs some blushes and kept them in the fight.
What a fight it was in the final quarter, too, with just four points separating the two sides and neither team giving an inch.
For every break the Blues made or every phase of pressure they built, the Chiefs found an answer defensively.
Whether it was a last-gasp tackle or a penalty turnover stemming from the breakdown, Gatland’s troops managed to nullify the attacking threat posed by the Blues.
Their off-the-ball tenacity was eventually rewarded when they were given a lineout throw on the opposition’s 22 metre mark.
A penalty advantage gave the Chiefs free license to wreak havoc on attack, and that they did through Cruden’s ball-running and offloading ability, which tore the Blues apart.
That created a ton of space for Wainui in the outside channel, but a Caleb Clarke tackle stopped the Chiefs flyer in his tracks.
The visitors were given another penalty, though, and that’s when the Blues were forced to front up on their own tryline with the clock ticking into the final few minutes.
The pressures that came with that were evident, and replacement playmaker Harry Plummer was sent to the sin bin for cynical play with just two minutes to play.
That one-man disadvantage, however, didn’t deter Leon MacDonald’s team, and although the Chiefs tried to smash their way over the goal line, Josh Goodhue snagged a breakdown turnover to effectively secure a tightly-contested win for his side.
It was a controversial call given it looked like there was no clear release made by Goodhue, nor did it look like he was supporting his own body weight.
Nevertheless, that steal pushes the Blues back into second place on 17 points, just one point ahead of the third-placed Hurricanes and two behind the Crusaders.
As for the Chiefs, they remain rooted to bottom place on the competition standings after setting a franchise record seven straight defeats.
Blues 21 (Tries to Matt Duffie, Patrick Tuipulotu, Finlay Christie; 3 conversions to Beauden Barrett; yellow card to Harry Plummer)
Chiefs 17 (Tries to Lachlan Boshier, Solomon Alaimalo; 2 conversions and penalty to Damian McKenzie)
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