The Blues have walked away from a hastily-arranged game-of-three-halves in Cambridge undefeated after beating the Crusaders and Chiefs at Hautapu Rugby Club.
Blues halfback Jonathan Ruru stole the show with hat-trick against the Crusaders to help guide his side to 26-19 victory in an encounter that seemed as if it would never go ahead after Auckland went into a three-day lockdown earlier this week.
A follow-up 14-7 win over the Chiefs, who squandered multiple chances to draw level or even push on to win, ensured their unbeaten status.
By contrast, the Hamilton franchise failed to pick up a win all afternoon, going down 21-14 to the Crusaders in the first half of the match, just a week after they beat both the Blues and Hurricanes in a game-of-three-halves in Upper Hutt.
Getting off to a fast start and showing their intent to set the pace of the game, the Crusaders were the first to strike from an attacking lineout when Ethan Blackadder punched a hole in the Chiefs’ defensive line to set Cullen Grace up for a try.
The Chiefs hit back almost immediately, though, as a mistake from the restart allowed Quinn Tupaea and rookie halfback Xavier Roe to combine and put the former into the corner to level the score.
Ill-discipline cost the Chiefs again, though, as that handed the Crusaders another attacking lineout inside the opposition’s 22.
A solid rolling maul sucked in the Chiefs defenders, allowing Richie Mo’unga to spin the ball wide and put Sevu Reece over the tryline without a finger being laid on him.
A wonderful piece of defensive work at the breakdown by Grace won the Crusaders another penalty, and the reigning Super Rugby Aotearoa champions again went to their lineout as their main strike weapon.
Looking clinical and precise, their forward pack rolled through their Chiefs counterparts for the third time inside the opening 20 minutes, with hooker Brodie McAlister providing the finishing touches with his side’s third try.
An attempt to give the Crusaders a taste of their own medicine, a lineout 10 metres from the opposition tryline turned to custard for the Chiefs, but the impetus provided by Roe kept their try-scoring prospects alive.
Sniping around the fringes of the ruck, some shaky drawing and passing eventually saw Shaun Stevenson get his mitts on the ball and he rounded Blackadder to stroll over for his side’s second try.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 20, 2021
A slew of penalties went against the Crusaders both in the lead-up to and aftermath of that try, which saw McAlister and Grace sent to the sin bin for foul play at the breakdown and a high tackle, respectively.
However, the Chiefs couldn’t capitalise on their opponent’s poor discipline, despite a few line breaks from the likes of Roe, Stevenson and Ollie Norris.
Key to their misfortune was their inability to execute at the set piece, an area of which needs plenty of work before their season-opener against the Highlanders in Hamilton on March 5.
Likewise for the Crusaders, the onslaught of penalties they conceded in the backend of the half needs addressing before they kick-off Super Rugby Aotearoa in Dunedin next Friday, but they did enough on Saturday to hold out for a 21-14 win over the Chiefs.
The first of the three half wasn’t without its injury concerns, with the likes of David Havili, Will Jordan and Samisoni Taukei’aho all leaving the field to receive medical attention at various stages.
It was unsurprising, then, to see changes galore when the Crusaders ran out for the second of their two halves to play the Blues, but that didn’t stop them from getting underway with the same intent to attack from the first whistle.
That much was exemplified when Chay Fihaki acrobatically dived over the line to score following yet another superbly taken try from an attacking lineout.
However, their penalty issues didn’t let up either as back-to-back infringements at the ruck letting the Blues strike from a lineout deep inside the Crusaders’ 22, with Ruru sniping from the back of a maul to dot over and equalise.
It didn’t take long for the Crusaders to hit back from, you guessed it, another quality lineout.
Phase-after-phase play following the set piece, which came about after Patrick Tuipulotu was pinged for being offside, saw Mitchell Dunshea surge over the line underneath the posts, despite the best defensive efforts of Rieko Ioane.
Waratahs recruit Perese could now miss half the Super Rugby AU season following an outrageous tip tackle during #REDvWAR ?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 19, 2021
The string of penalties kept coming, but it was a star-quality piece of play from the Blues that put Ruru in for his second try of the afternoon.
A bobbling ball was scooped up by Akira Ioane following a squandered catch from a high ball, and the No. 8 spread the ball a good 15 metres wide to his brother Rieko, who took the defence on at pace.
Hitting a gap between two defenders, the younger Ioane slipped a deft offload to the supporting Stephen Perofeta, who stepped one defender and scorched through towards the tryline before drawing in a defender and unselfishly passing to Ruru for an easy run to the line.
Hot on attack again shortly afterwards, the Blues looked to have missed a chance to take the lead from a poorly-taken lineout, but some intuitive play with ball in hand by Ruru was enough for him to squeak over for a hat-trick and state his case for starting honours next week.
A piece of brilliance between Crusaders first-five Fergus Burke and Fihaki, which saw the pair link up via a cross-field banana kick, put their side back on level terms.
Penalties again came back to bite the Crusaders shortly afterwards, though, with Ethan Blackadder and Whetukamokamo Douglas both yellow carded for illegally defending the monstrous offensive wave the Blues hit them with inside the final 10 minutes.
That poor discipline from the Crusaders and relentlessness from the Blues eventually paid dividends, as a Harry Plummer cross kick fell right into the hands of Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens, who had an easy job of planting the ball down in the right-hand corner.
In the end, that try three minutes from time proved to be the winner, giving them victory in a match they thought they wouldn’t be able to play just a few days ago.
An overhaul in personnel for their final half clash against the Chiefs didn’t diminish the Blues’ attacking ambition, with Tom Robinson reaping the rewards of his side’s ability to breach the advantage line in the early stages of the encounter.
In a affair where there were far fewer points scored than in the prior two halves, there were certainly no shortage of opportunities for either side.
It had been 1,316 days since the Force had last played a Super game in Perth. https://t.co/6xagxuu0AX
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 19, 2021
In the case of the Chiefs, halfback Brad Weber was the main instigator on attack, constantly looking to put the Blues on the back foot through his chip kicking or runs down the short side of the field.
As for the Blues, they used their main man Caleb Clarke wherever possible, with last year’s breakout star continuing on from where he left off in 2020 with an array of damaging runs that the Chiefs battled to contain.
It was neither who had the next best chance to score, though, with young lock Sam Darry nearly crossing the line from a maul, but an obstruction call went against Gerard Cowley-Tuioti to deny the Blues a match-sealing try.
That didn’t matter, though, because after having held out wave after wave of Chiefs attack, the Blues found themselves back in the same position, with Kurt Eklund crashing over from a better-executed rolling maul to confirm the victory.
A consolation try to Etene Nanai-Seturo after the clock had expired did little to change the outcome of the match, although it was a good example of the youngster’s pace and power, as well as Damian McKenzie’s playmaking from first-five.
Aside from a concerning chest injury to new prop Nepo Laulala, the Blues will no doubt be buoyed by their efforts in Cambridge, and will hope to take that form into their first match of the season against the Hurricanes in Wellington next Saturday.
Chiefs 14 (Tries to Quinn Tupaea and Shaun Stevenson; 2 conversions to Bryn Gatland)
Crusaders 21 (Tries to Cullen Grace, Sevu Reece and Brodie McAlister; 3 conversions to Richie Mo’unga; yellow cards to McAlister and Grace)
Blues 26 (Tries to Jonathan Ruru (3) and Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepkens; 3 conversions to Otere Black)
Crusaders 19 (Tries to Chay Fihaki (2) and Mitchell Dunshea; 2 conversions to Fergus Burke; yellow cards to Ethan Blackadder and Whetukamokamo Douglas)
Chiefs 7 (Try to Etene Nanai-Seturo; conversion to Damian McKenzie)
Blues 14 (Tries to Tom Robinson and Kurt Eklund; 2 conversions to Otere Black)
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