By Niall Anderson, NZ Herald

If you were gathering evidence that the Blues could be the real deal in 2021, their 31-16 season-opening victory over the Hurricanes would make a strong start to the prosecution’s case.

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A conviction may still be ways away, but by toppling the hosts in Wellington, and doing so with a dominant set-piece performance, savvy discipline and strong defence, there are promising signs for the Blues’ second Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign.

A counter-argument could be formed that their sloppy opposition provided a few helpful gifts that won’t be as forthcoming on future travels. The Hurricanes, as has seemingly been their style since Covid-19 brought Super Rugby Aotearoa into existence, had problems with their discipline, giving away two deserved yellow cards, and their inexperienced halves combination struggled to give space to the likes of Ngani Laumape and promising returnee Julian Savea.

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Highlanders vs Crusaders | Super Rugby Aotearoa | Round One

Yet, away wins in this competition are extremely valuable, and by joining the Crusaders in nabbing one in the opening week, the Blues have made an early indication that they deserve the status of the second-best team in the competition.

For years, the Blues were heavily criticised for not being able to do the little things that conventional rugby wisdom correlates with winning. But by closing out a tight game, winning the clichéd “battle up front”, and managing to grind through a significant period of ugly play, the signs are good that Leon MacDonald’s men have the substance to build on last season’s breakout.

That ugly play consisted of a large chunk of the first half, after an electric start which saw a trio of confused Hurricanes forwards attempt to string passes together near their own goaline, Dalton Papalii pouncing on the mistake and scoring – before the Blues decided to try their own Keystone Cops routine, managing to dive over, near and underneath Asafo Aumua as he barged through five defenders and caterpillared his way to the line.

Six minutes in, and the game was alive, but the next 34 minutes were bogged down with endless penalties, scrums, and everyone’s favourite – scrum penalties. The Hurricanes were the biggest culprits, with the Blues’ All Blacks-laden pack dominating the scrum, and after five penalties in six minutes, James Blackwell was sent to the bin after straying offside.

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Julian Savea’s return – showing glimpses of his old self when given space, and even clearer flashbacks when forced to barge over defenders in no space – briefly saw him shifted to the side of the scrum, but against the odds, the Hurricanes held on, and two booming Jordie Barrett penalties gave them an 11-7 halftime lead.

It was against the run of play, but more fitting was the start to the second half, where smooth interplay led to a break from Akira Ioane, who went where few have gone before by fending off Ardie Savea. A penalty advantage followed, and a crosskick from Otere Black bounced kindly for Caleb Clarke who dotted down.

The whistle continued to favour the Blues five minutes later, as Du’Plessis Kirifi – on for the poor Vaea Fifita – was carded for what busy but communicative referee Paul Williams deemed a “cynical” breakdown infringement on his own line.

By then, the well-performed propping duo of James Lay and Nepo Laulala had been replaced by Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tuungafasi, but their supremacy was just as obvious, as the resulting scrum led to a three-on-one overlap which Stephen Perofeta – impressive on return from injury – finished off.

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Down by 10, Aumua’s second try – firing out of a stalled lineout drive like a bullet – gave the Hurricanes a chance, but their discipline continued to let them down, with an Otere Black penalty making the buffer a safe eight, before Rieko Ioane pounced on a knock-on from a crosskick and raced 65 metres to seal a victory that should be one of many for the Blues in 2021.

Hurricanes 16 (2 tries to Asafo Aumua; 2 penalties to Jordie Barrett; yellow cards to James Blackwell and Du’Plessis Kirifi)
Blues 31 (Tries to Dalton Papalii, Caleb Clarke, Stephen Perofeta and Rieko Ioane; 4 conversions and penalty to Otere Black)

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and was republished with permission.

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