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Out of the blue: Epic comeback seals Blues Aupiki title

By Adam Julian
AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - APRIL 13: The Blues hold up the Aupiki Trophy following the Super Rugby Aupiki Final between the Blues and the Chiefs Manawa at Eden Park on April 13, 2024 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The Blues are Super Rugby Aupiki champions for the first time after an improbable, herculean 24-18 victory over Chiefs Manawa at Eden Park.

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With 15 minutes remaining ominous clouds became unremitting rain and the hosts were down 5-18, wobbling towards the canvas.

What followed was a genuine Houdini act sparked from a most precocious source. Kahlia Awa in her debut season produced a cameo so assured and influential it might pique the interest of Black Ferns selectors.

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Rallying her beleaguered forwards, the Blues mauled within inches of the visitors’ try line in the 65th minute. Suddenly the ball was disappearing quicker from the ruck. The body position, urgency, muscle, and precision of the carries greater. Awa scored from close range, and it became 18-10. Krysten Cottrell missed, what typically for her would be, a regulation conversion.

Awa got the Blues marching again with a dart and dash that ended with a slight fumble by Niall Williams-Guthrie just outside the 22. A mighty Blues scrum resulted in a penalty. Awa tapped quickly as the Blues peppered again.

With battered bodies strewn left, Awa switched right to an unmarked Katelyn Vahaakolo. Reese Anderson chased smartly, ushering Vahaakolo wider but the Black Ferns flyer had enough room to finish. Cottrell nailed the sideline conversion: 18-17.

The Blues were hesitant from the restart. Passes were bobbled as the Chiefs hunted. Patricia Maliepo sensed the danger and smashed a kick down the middle of the field which dribbled into the Manawa in-goal area. Chelsea Semple gathered, surveyed the options, and then BANG. She was belted by Maliepo and knocked on.

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The winning try had a sense of inevitability about it. Manawa mana was unquestionable, but the Blues were possessed. The collisions were gladiatorial, Awa’s clearances swift. Eventually, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, sporting a golf ball-sized black eye, euphorically crashed over.

Tension amplified when the try was investigated by the television match official. The Black Ferns Player of the Year in 2023 said afterwards:“Man, that was a tough game. We knew it would take whoever was on our team to get us to the final whistle. It’s what dreams are made of. From the first camp, I knew we had something going in this team.”

“The try is for my sisters, yeah, that’s what finals footy is about, push until the 80th minute.”

Much of the first half was played between the 22s. Though the Blues enjoyed 57% of possession and two-thirds of territory, it was the Chiefs who turned with an 8-5 advantage at the interval.

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The Chiefs scored the first try in the fifth minute. Grace Steinmetz skidded on her knees to retrieve a dipping pass and then cannoned a skip ball to Ruby Tui who delicately chipped for Renee Holmes to gather the bounce. It was a reversal of their roles from the classic try Tui scored in the Black Ferns’ dramatic Rugby World Cup semi-final win against France in 2022 at Eden Park.

It would take 25 minutes for the next points to be scored, Holmes kicking a penalty to make it 8-0.

The Chiefs try was conceded after a novel penalty the franchise invented. In 2022 Pita Gus Sowakula jumped over Aaron Smith for a spectacular try against the Highlanders. World Rugby ruled soon after that jumping over opponents would be deemed illegal.

The prospect of Pita Gus Sowakula crash landing on you is something perfectly reasonable to try and prevent. Tui’s fly, don’t they? Ruby sailed through the air like Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone which would have delighted photographers but was pinged for the graceful infraction.

From the tap, the Blues sent four passes in the direction of Vahaakolo who finished after early incisions threatened similar outcomes.

Manawa stamped their authority on proceedings after the break. The suffocating maul started to purr, and the Blues discipline disappeared conceding six consecutive penalties. In the 52nd minute, Maliepo saved a certain try with a lunge and jersey pull on Reese Anderson. The Blues finally wilted two minutes later when Mia Anderson barged with venom.

Manawa Lock, trojan Black Fern, and policewoman Charmaine Smith appeared shell-shocked speaking with Sky half an hour later.

“It was a battle. We expected nothing less. The Blues are an awesome side, but I couldn’t be prouder of the Manawa. We’ve overcome a lot of adversity,” she said.

The pain of this defeat will be an adversity that endures. Manawa lost the final from 0-19 ahead in 2023. Captain Kennedy Simon headlined an effort that’s hard to fault but fell short again.

The Blues transformation from last to first started with Auckland in the Farah Palmer Cup last year. The Storm’s surprising and spectacular upset of Canterbury in September’s Premiership final in Christchurch shattered Canterbury’s apparent invincibility.

Twice the Blues conquered reigning Aupki champions Matatu in 2024. Matatu features several players who’ve set the benchmark in the FPC for the past several seasons. The Blues coaching staff of Willie Walker, Linda ‘Bindi” Itunu, Carlos Spencer, and Census Johnston deserve enormous credit for unpicking the Chiefs superiority. With 11 wins Manawa still holds the record for most victories in the brief history of the competition.

An unfortunate feature of Aupiki, in contrast to England where record crowds are flocking to the Six Nations, is the multitude of empty seats inside stadiums. There must be a concern at New Zealand Rugby (NZR) that only family and friends of those involved, and a few hearty diehards, are the only ones attending matches. Why?

It can’t be the rugby. Aupiki lacks the incessant kicking of its male counterpart. A desire to keep the ball in play and use it expansively makes for a refreshingly vibrant spectacle.

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