Don’t count the Blues out of the Super Rugby Aotearoa running just yet.
That’s the message Leon MacDonald’s squad sent to the rest of the competition as they ended the Highlanders’ faint title hopes with a hard-fought 32-21 win at Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
The victory keeps them deep in the hunt for the Kiwi domestic title with just two rounds to play, trailing the league-leading Crusaders by just three points.
Based on the evidence provided in the deep south, the Blues could cause their Christchurch rivals a few headaches over the coming fortnight as their defensive prowess blossomed against a committed Highlanders attack.
It was their attack that proved effective early on, though, as a passage of dominance by the Blues kept the Highlanders back-footed deep in their own half.
The onslaught of penalties called against the home side eventually proved too much, as a powerful Blues forward pack laid the platform for Akira Ioane to crash over from off the back of a scrum.
The Highlanders looked to hit back immediately afterwards, but a loose carry gifted the ball back to the visitors.
That was all star playmaker Beauden Barrett needed to launch a lethal counter-attack, setting wing Caleb Clarke away free on the left wing with a cross kick near halfway.
Barrett’s opposite Josh Ioane felt the full force of the 107kg speedster as he was merely used as a speedbump, and a simple sequence of drawing and passing put halfback Finlay Christie in for an easy try.
A Ioane penalty – his first points in Super Rugby Aotearoa since returning from injury – quelled some fears among the home crowd of a first quarter blowout.
There's a growing chorus of support for Blues sensation Caleb Clarke to earn a maiden call-up to the All Blacks, and he showed why against the Highlanders in Dunedin.https://t.co/oBAY9oGRGc
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 2, 2020
Those fears were then completely nullified when the Highlanders took full advantage of a slew of infringements conceded by the Blues to put co-captain Ash Dixon over for his side’s first try of the afternoon off the back of a rolling maul.
The prolific No. 2, whose form has earned him a starting spot over All Blacks rake Liam Coltman, cost his side the chance to take the lead just minutes later, though, when he opted to have a crack at the line himself rather than spread the ball wide to the unmarked Josh McKay.
It almost came back to bite them when Blues loose forward Dalton Papalii scorched away to seemingly score after picking off a wayward pass, but a TMO referral showed Karl Tu’inukuafe had impeded play from an offside position.
That gave Ioane a chance to take the lead from the tee, which he did from almost point blank range.
The one-point advantage didn’t last long, though.
A turnover by lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti inside Highlanders territory sparked another Blues counter-attack spearheaded by Clarke.
His pace and power, which has been widely lauded all competition-long, drew in multiple opposition defenders, freeing up ample room for Christie and TJ Faiane to exploit, with the latter eventually crossing the chalk.
Barrett might have been left to rue his poor goal kicking as he missed his second shot from three attempts, but some stern ball-running off the back of a scrum yielded a fourth Blues try through Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Barrett banged home the ensuing conversion to hand the Blues a 24-16 half-time lead, and it didn’t take long for that advantage to grow in the second half.
Just three minutes into the second stanza, Christie benefitted from some impressive distribution across the Blues backline to scorch in for his second try of the match.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 2, 2020
That’s when the Aucklanders began to clamp down on the hosts, who could barely manage to escape their own 22 for much of the first quarter of the second half.
For all the pressure the Blues applied on them, though, the Highlanders will presumably have been relieved to have only conceded three points from a Barrett penalty.
It’s those 20 minutes of territorial advantage that suffocated the likelihood of a Highlanders fightback.
Multiple attempts to score while trenched in the Blues’ 22 came up luckless, and much credit for that can be handed to the away team’s defence.
A late Shannon Frizell try came about 10 minutes too late for Aaron Mauger’s men, and in spite of conceding a raft of penalties and a yellow card to Sione Mafileo, Leon MacDonald’s side held firm to emerge victorious and walk away with the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy for the first time since 2011.
Blues 32 (Tries to Finlay Christie (2), Akira Ioane, TJ Faiane and Ofa Tu’ungafasi; 2 conversions and penalty to Beauden Barrett; yellow card to Sione Mafileo)
Highlanders 21 (Tries to Ash Dixon and Shannon Frizell; conversion and 3 penalties to Josh Ioane)
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