Any doubts surrounding the Blues’ ability to challenge for the Super Rugby Aotearoa title must surely have been dispelled after the Auckland side snapped a nine-year losing streak in Hamilton to beat the Chiefs 24-12 at FMG Stadium Waikato.
In a match heavily influenced by the slippery conditions forced upon the players by constant drizzle, the Blues backed up their 30-20 defeat of the Hurricanes last week with another impressive performance against Warren Gatland’s men in Hamilton.
Dominating the territory stakes early on, the hosts showed how threatening they can be on attack in the early stages of the contest.
The first glimpse came through young midfielder Quinn Tupaea, who put immense defensive pressure on the Blues deep inside their own half to force a breakdown turnover that went to waste with a misfired Aaron Cruden cross-kick.
Then Sean Wainui blitzed through the Blues’ broken defensive line to illustrate his underrated evasiveness, but it wasn’t until the 12th minute before the home side were rewarded for their efforts through the boot of Damian McKenzie, who rammed home a penalty goal from close range.
Some good continuity from the Auckland side’s forward pack forced the Chiefs’ defence to crack, with promising No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu crashing in under the posts.
Back-to-back penalties hurt the visitors, however, as the referee’s stringent officiating of the breakdown resulted in Ofa Tu’ungafasi being pinged for an incorrect entry into the ruck, allowing McKenzie to slot his second attempt from about 30 metres out.
A further slew of disciplinary issues continued to put the Blues on the back foot, and the Chiefs looked set to re-claim the lead shortly before the half hour mark with a 5 metre lineout of their own.
Poor execution as the set piece let the hosts down, though, just as it did in their defeat to the Highlanders in Dunedin last week.
An overthrow by hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho gifted the Blues a get-out-of-jail-free card, putting to waste all the pressure they had built in the sequence of play beforehand.
Despite that, McKenzie had the opportunity to push the Chiefs back into the lead with a penalty attempt from just inside his own half after Boshier’s impressive defensive work extended the Blues’ penalty count to five on the trot.
His effort swung away to the left, though, in a miss that was replicated by Otere Black, who shaved the left upright with a 41m penalty kick of his own just moments later.
With the clock ticking towards half-time, the Chiefs took it upon themselves to embark on some adventurous play well inside their own territory, but the conditions didn’t match their ambitious vision, which led to spillage in a pass between McKenzie and Tupaea.
That laid the foundations for the Blues to strike late in the half, and some patient build-up play with ball in hand eventually drew an offside penalty out of the Chiefs.
Black made no mistake with the ensuing penalty attempt, giving the away side a 10-6 lead with little more than two minutes left in the half.
McKenzie closed that gap to one point on the stroke of half-time with a successful attempt from the boot following another breakdown penalty that copped Blues flanker Dalton Papalii a 10-minute stint in the sin bin.
That period of holding a one-man advantage proved fruitless for the Chiefs, though, as the Blues dominated the kicking duel in an uneventful opening 10 minutes to the second half.
Their reward was prolonged possession inside enemy territory, which was capped off by another penalty goal to Black following an incorrect entry to a ruck by Boshier.
McKenzie cancelled that three-pointer out just moments later thanks to Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s inability to roll away from the breakdown through a penalty goal in excess of 40 metres.
The slippery ball made for terse viewing in the second half as neither side could really force the other onto the back foot offensively, but a shift in momentum on the penalty count fell in favour of the Blues as the match wore on.
That put the Aucklanders in good field position as the clock ticked into the final quarter, which Barrett used as an opportunity to launch a drop goal that sailed through the uprights to extend the visitors’ advantage back to four points.
The star fullback doubled his personal tally with a well-taken penalty attempt about five minutes later, leaving the Chiefs in a hole with 10 minutes to play.
That hole resembled something of a deep well by the time Mark Telea slid in for his side’s second try soon afterwards, with the wing capitalising on a powerful break made by his fellow wing Caleb Clarke on the opposite side of the park.
Good distribution of the ball by the Blues’ big men – such as Sotutu, Patrick Tuipulotu and James Parsons – opened the Chiefs up further, and Telea was on hand to apply the finishing touches and put the game beyond doubt.
A late attacking burst by the home side brought some excitement to proceedings thanks to the efforts of Tupaea and Anton Lienert-Brown down the right wing.
A combination of Sotutu’s defensive presence and a breakdown error by replacement loose forward Adam Thomson brought any try-scoring threat to a spluttering halt inside the Blues’ 22.
The result leaves Leon MacDonald’s side at the top of the table following their undefeated start to the domestic league as they prepare to face the Highlanders back in Auckland next week.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Chiefs find themselves wallowing in last place after back-to-back defeats.
Blues 24 (Tries to Hoskins Sotutu and Mark Telea; conversion, 2 penalties to Otere Black, penalty and drop goal to Beauden Barrett; yellow card to Dalton Papalii)
Chiefs 12 (4 penalties to Damian McKenzie)
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