The Blues returned to play in steamy Auckland for the first time in 2021, following a bye-week and a stay in the Waikato countryside because of the Covid lockdown.
The Highlanders were one and one after a defeat against the Crusaders and a comeback victory in Chiefs’ territory. Aaron Smith returned to the starting lineup as captain, with Ash Dixon on the bench.
Lock Sam Darry was given his maiden cap on the virgin turf at Eden Park as the Blues flexed their considerable muscles across the field to hammer the Southern men 39-17 to retain the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy.
Here are the Blues’ ratings
1. Karl Tu’inukuafe – 6.5/10
Didn’t have things all his own way against Siate Tokolahi. Penalised in the 33rd minute at scrum time but was a busy tackler and still has a perfect moustache. Off shortly after halftime.
2. Luteru Tolai – 5.5
Got his chance to start and was impressive early on. Made an aggressive first tackle on Frizell and secured a good turnover in the 5th minute to set up a line out attack. Missed a gimme try, dropped the ball when over the line in the 38th minute following a lineout drive. Off in the 48th minute.
3. Ofa Tuungafasi – 7
Earnt the first scrum penalty at the 14th minute vs de Groot. Must be the biggest close-quarter hitter in Aotearoa, absolutely buried a couple of Highlander runners two minutes before halftime. Off shortly after halftime.
4. Patrick Tuipulotu – 6.5
Had the first and last say for his team in the first half. Got up to whack the catcher from kickoff and closed things off with a lineout steal. 11 big tackles and off at the 62nd minute to rapturous applause from Blues supporters.
5. Sam Darry – 7
Great debut from the lanky lad. Little knock-on in the 7th minute from an attacking line out but got into his stride with a charge down on Nareki in the 25th. A great set of tackles around the 55-minute mark probably persuaded the coaching staff to keep him on.
6. Akira Ioane – 8
Mature performance from the loosie, it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been a 6 for too long. Two lineout takes early and made a great run down the right wing then threw an in-field pass to his brother which seemed to be kosher – the ball seemed to go backwards from the hand – but the refs thought otherwise. Good turnover in the 62nd, then a minute later was rewarded with a try.
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7. Dalton Papalii – 7.5
What an athlete, it’s a real shame he probably won’t be able to take on the Crusaders next week. Bundled out down the right wing in the 24th minute, secured an outstanding turnover in the 34th on Jona Nareki which led to the Ioane brothers’ almost-try. Superhero tackle on Connor Garden-Bachop in the 40th to close down an attack. Received a nasty bump on the head in the 47th and couldn’t pass the HIA after a game-high tackle count.
8. Hoskins Sotutu – 7
Seeing some glimpses of magic over the 80 minutes. Came to life in the 24th minute with a break past Josh Dickson. Then after Frizell smashed into him (Sotutu was eventually penalised for obstruction) in the 60th, we saw him feature out wide and he finished on a high.
9. Jonathan Ruru – 7
Has become fit and agile but we saw his strength too, coming from behind the defensive line with two brilliant turnovers in the 45th and 47th minutes. Also took a lineout ball.
10. Otere Black – 7.5
Almost expect him to be dressed in a black suit with a baton the way he conducts this orchestra. A good reward for following up on the inside to grab an early try. Even made a tough cleanout in the 26th minute on attack.
11. Caleb Clarke – 7
Delivered a nasty rib rattler on Ngatungane Punivai to snuff out an attack in 13th minute and had an easy finish in 18th minute. Top metres for the match.
12. Harry Plummer – 8
Got himself well and truly into the game with influential plays on attack and offered up some stiff defence. Seems to be growing in confidence in being able to handle the physical questions asked of a 12, nice arrow-straight run to set up the Clarke try. He brought down Nareki in the 34th minute with the tackle that eventually saw the Highlanders star out of the match which also led to a handy turnover. Had a hand in two second-half tries, an astute skip pass to Perofeta for the Narawa try and in the 64th, gave a nice ball off the ground to Akira Ioane.
13. Rieko Ioane – 6.5
Has danger written all over him but some of those small errors coming into his game must be as frustrating for him as it is the fans. Any fluffing of chances next week against the champions will be costly. Fluffed his difficult first opportunity, a knock-on with the line beckoning. Some nice last passes to Black and Clarke for tries but dropped two balls cold in the 26th and 31st minutes on attack.
14. Mark Telea- 5
Minimal action before he came away limping in the clash that also cost Jona Nareki his afternoon. Subbed at halftime.
15. Stephen Perofeta – 6
Did what was required at the back in his team’s dominance. Nice work in the midfield to set up the first try in 10th minute.
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16. Kurt Eklund – 6.5
On at 48 and scored a gift lineout maul try. You’d have to imagine he’ll be back to take on Codie Taylor next week.
17. James Lay – 5.5
On at 47 and maintained scrum domination. Pinged for offside in the 53rd minute.
18. Nepo Laulala – 6
On at 47. His first scrum forced a penalty. Will be an interesting call on who gets the start next week.
19. Gerard Cowley-Tuioti – N/A
On at 62.
20. Tom Robinson – 6
On at 47 and flung himself around with gay abandon.
21. Sam Nock– 4.5
On at 54. Points off for the blond mullet trying to out Little Bo Peep Fakatava. A yellow card in the 70th. Has given up ground to Ruru.
22. Tanielu Tele’a – 5
On at 67. His missed tackle on Garden-Bachop led to the Fakatava try.
23. Emoni Narawa – 7
On at halftime and did very well. Has so much pace to burn, it was eye-opening to see him squeeze in on D more than once and lope over to cover after giving up loads of space on the outside. His first touch was to stroll through for the try. One more swift run in the 64th minute led to the Akira try.
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