Last week they threatened but this week the Blues confirmed that they could be realistic Vodacom Super Rugby contenders as they shocked the Crusaders 34-15 at Eden Park in Auckland on Friday.
He never scored a try but centre Rene Ranger, so hard to bring down and so elusive with his running, was the stand-out player of a match that featured several impressive performances, not the least of them coming from the hard working Blues flank Luke Braid. Ranger and Braid were at the heart of many of the Blues’ sustained attacks in which patience was an ever present virtue. Also good was the Blues flyhalf Chris Woakes.
The Blues were convincing and deserved victors and were full value for what was effectively a five try versus five penalty win. It’s not often that the Crusaders concede that many tries without scoring any of their own and it was a disturbing opening match for the long time champions, with some aspects of their defensive game and the handling of the aerial assault requiring particular attention before they play again.
For the Blues though there are no such concerns after two consecutive wins and the elated celebrating after their fifth try was a far cry from the scenes we saw at an almost deserted Eden Park towards the end of last season when the Blues were listing near the bottom of the log. John Kirwan has spoken of a five year plan to build a dynasty but already the new coach is weaving his magic.
The Blues were so impressive in the first half that it wouldn’t be stretching it to suggest they should have wrapped it up by halftime instead of just leading by eight points. They so dominated the Crusaders that you had to rub your eyes in disbelief when a Dan Carter penalty after 24 minutes put the visitors into a 6-5 lead.
That was after Carter had started the scoring with an early penalty and the Blues had struck back with a try that was built around sucking in the defenders with a series of forceful pick-and-go probes upfield before the ball was spun to the right for flanker Steven Luata to score on the right. The Blues would have won more comprehensively had it not been for some missed kicks from Piri Weepu, who failed with the first conversion.
While the scoreboard told us the Crusaders were ahead, in every other aspect they were behind, with the Blues commanding 70% of the possession and enjoying a similar advantage in the territory battle. But while the Crusaders would have been pleased to be in it when they were being so comprehensively outplayed, it always looked just a matter of time before the Blues would break through.
It happened through two excellent tries that were the product of a patient build-up but rounded off by wing Frank Halai in the right hand corner. The first came just after Weepu had put the Blues back into the lead with a kick at posts, with the initial thrust coming from the irrepressible Ranger as he carried the ball on from a Luke Braid break.
Even though the Crusaders scrambled well on defence to cut down an initial advantage in numbers going left, the recycle and some precise passing to the right created the space Halai needed to squeeze his way over. Weepu was off target with the angled conversion, which meant it was a seven point game, but it wasn’t long before the Blues went more than a score clear, with flyhalf Chris Noakes this time being the creative influence as he found Halai over the goalline with a well-targeted chip-kick.
The conversion made it 20-6, and as so often happens with Crusaders, finding themselves behind served to wake them up. Carter kicked a penalty with three minutes to go to halftime and then the Christchurch team launched their first sustained attack of the match, with only good Blues defence keeping the sweeping cross field attack from producing points.
The pressure did net some gain for Crusaders though, and another Carter penalty brought the Crusaders back into the game at 20-12 at the break, and then it was 20-15 when the Crusaders started the second half well and forced another penalty.
That score heralded the start of a quarter hour where the game looked in the balance, with both teams taking turns to exert pressure. It was the Blues who made pressure translate into points, however, with another long patient build-up eventually seeing Luke Braid running through onto a front-row forward who had been held up on the line and dotting down for his team’s bonus-point try.
With a quarter of the match remaining, that left the Crusaders chasing the game, and they did look to be building themselves into their season as they spent most of those last 20 minutes on the attack. They final appeared to have cracked the Blues defence open when Israel Dagg went over for a try that was controversially disallowed by the TMO on the grounds of double movement.
It looked a poor call and it capped an unhappy night for Dagg, who struggled with his defensive game on the wing. And that misery was compounded when the Blues scored a break-out try a minute later through wing George Maola that wrapped up the match for the hosts.
Blues – Tries: Steven Luatua, Frank Halai (2), Luke Braid, George Moala. Conversion: Piri Weepu (2), Baden Kerr. Penalty: Piri Weepu.
Crusaders – Penalties: Dan Carter (5).