The Blues have contrived to do the near impossible and lose games they should never have many times over the past decade or so and, at the start of a new one at a very warm and expectant Eden Park, they have done so once again.
This one to the Chiefs was an extraordinary effort, and while Warren Gatland’s men were bolstered significantly by the second-half interventions of reserves Aaron Cruden, Anton Lienert-Brown, Brad Weber and Pita Gus Sowakula, the home side’s 19-5 halftime lead should have been defended far more stoutly than it was.
“We were obviously pretty optimistic at halftime – we played well, we dominated possession and I thought our defence looked pretty rugged at halftime so there was a lot to smile about going into the sheds,” Blues coach Leon MacDonald said afterwards.
“I thought they played particularly well (in second half) – the impact off the bench, Cruden in particular, was outstanding,” he said of the Chiefs. “You could see the old wise head take control and on the flip side of that our error rate was too high which kept feeding them opportunities.”
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The Blues appeared completely in control at the break. Rieko Ioane scored two typically blockbusting tries on the occasion of his 50th game, the Blues’ scrum was dominant, defensively they were excellent and the Chiefs, expected to be competition front-runners this season, were strangely absent on attack and defence – they missed 20 tackles in the first half alone.
And yet, the visitors’ comeback was quick and brutal, a true turnaround which reaped a total of 32 second-half points, and it was helped immensely by the introduction of their returning first-five Cruden who coolly organised their attack, dropped a goal in the final moments to extend his team’s margin to seven points and kicked a penalty after the siren to deny the Blues a losing bonus point.
“I thought he was really good,” Gatland said of former All Black Cruden, “but I thought [No10] Kaleb Trask did a really good job for us. He played well but didn’t get a huge amount of opportunities because we were shooting ourselves in the foot in the first half with mistakes and turnovers, and the Blues were pretty good.
“The message at halftime was to be more decisive, carry well, and be more accurate with the ball. We were much better in the second half.”
Ioane, his milestone recognised on the field afterwards, said: “Our first half was awesome. The point of difference was their bench. They had a lot of experience to come on and really give it to us. With Cruds and Anton leading the charge they had some cool, calm heads and were able to get there.”
The Blues’ lead was quickly wiped out after the break as their previously near impenetrable defence sprang leaks all over the place and their belief went in the same direction. Those home fans wishing for a new narrative from their side this year would have gone home sorely disappointed.
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi was firmly entrenched as the @AllBlacks' third halfback in 2018 then everything went south a year later. Triple T spoke to @TomVinicombe ahead of the new #SuperRugby season. https://t.co/pYyY5iVRGn @ChiefsRugby
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 30, 2020
The Chiefs were hamstrung by the departure after 20 minutes of tighthead prop Nepo Laulala, the All Black down three times due to a knee injury and his final act was to give up a penalty.
Unfortunately for the Blues, Alex Hodgman who also gave Laulala’s replacement Angus Ta’avao a torrid time in the first half, left the field with his own knee problem which MacDonald thought could be serious.
Ioane, replaced after 55 minutes, try-scoring flanker Tony Lamborn, wing Mark Telea and No 8 Hoskins Sotutu enjoyed bright moments for the Blues which may please MacDonald but unfortunately for him and his team there were not enough, especially during what for them was a dark second half. New season, same old story.
“It’s disappointing given the position we played our way into,” MacDonald said.
Chiefs 37 (Samisoni Taukeiaho 2, Pita Gus Sowakula, Aidan Ross, Solomon Alaimalo tries; Aaron Cruden 3 cons, dropped goal, pen)
Blues 29 (Rieko Ioane 2, Tony Lamborn, Karl Tu’inukuafe tries; Stephen Perofeta 3 cons, Harry Plummer pen)
The sixth and final side in Global Rapid Rugby’s inaugural season has been named:
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