Five tries to nil
The Blues again showed the influence of former All Black coach Graham Henry, as they smashed the Crusaders 34-15 in their Super Rugby Round Three match in Auckland on Friday.
Yes, John Kirwan may be the head coach, but Henry's hand was there for all to see. There is a belief that teams make coaches, rather than the other way around but in this case it does seem that coaches have reformed teams, turning disappointment into glittering success.
What a wonderful match! It had so much - a surprise result, lots of energy and creativity and five splendid tries. If you live in Auckland you must be loving the Blues, your favourite team. For the rest of the rugby world the blues could well become your favourite other team. Their skill, confidence and daring are so thrilling.
There were some 31 000 spectators in Eden Park for the match. There may well be more the next time the Blues play.
The Blues, line-out aberrations notwithstanding, were full value for their bonus-point win. There were surprises in the way the Crusaders, playing their first Super Rugby match this year after a bye last week, played. Their handling was poor. They counterrucked well on occasion but conceded turnovers and two of their stars failed to shine. Daniel Carter kicked well at goal and that was really the extent of his contribution to the game. Israel Dagg, flung onto the wing, had a miserable match, rarely rising to mediocrity.
In the first half there were nine penalties - all at the tackle. The Crusaders got four of them and Carter goaled each one - unlike Piri Weepu who played so well and kicked so badly. The Crusaders who had been remote from the Blues- line ended the half down only 20-12 which seemed unfair to the Blues and their dominance and derring-do.
The Crusaders played with the breeze in the first half and when James Parsons was penalised Carter goaled. 3-0 after 3 minutes. But the Blues were on the attack. Twice they went through multiple phases, challenging the Crusaders' defence all the time as they advanced with each phase .Chris Noakes, Rene Ranger, Peter Saili and Cullum Retallick got closer and then Weepu floated out a long pass to big, unmarked Steven Luatua and the 21-year-old crashed over for the first try. 5-3 after 11 minutes and the Crusaders had had only scraps of possession, most of which they frittered away.
Carter kicked a penalty when Charles Piutau was penalised and then Weepu got one over for an infringement by Corey Flynn. 8-6 after 25 minutes.
Then came a great try.
Peter Saili forced a half gap and gave to Luke Braid who raced on before passing to Ranger who sped down the field. Tackled he got the ball to Braid and the Blues attacked on the left before going wide right where a brilliant pass by Piutau sent Frank Halai diving over in the corner. 13-6 after 27 minutes.
Back came the Blues. They turned a kickable penalty into an attacking line-out and bashed till Noakes chipped a perfect chip to his right. Halai caught the ball on the full and fell to ground for a try. This time Weepu converted. 20-6 after 33 minutes. The Crusaders actually attacked just before half-time but it was only two penalties that brought them close - on the scoreboard - at the break.
The Crusaders started the second half with greater vim and Kieran Read was right at the line but they had to do with a penalty. Their resurgence lasted all of four minutes before the Blues took over again.
They were close till Charlie Faumuina lost the ball. One of their best attacking weapons was the high kick. They kicked it well and made the Crusaders jittery. Off one high kick George Moala ran his side onto the attack and the Blues were bashing at the line again. Faumuina was stopped millimetres short but Braid, battered and bloodied, picked up and dabbed the ball over the line for a try hear the posts. Noakes converted. 27-15 with 21 minutes to play. That was the bonus-point try.
Read tapped a scrum free kick and George Whitelock was close. They were held up over the line and bashed from a five-metre scrum. They bashed and were again held up and bashed but Tom McCartney held them up to win a scrum turnover. But the Crusaders stayed on the attack and Dagg was over in the corner. The decision was referred to the TMO and the upshot was a penalty against the luckless Dagg for holding on in a tackle.
The Blues kicked out on their 22 and won a messy line-out. Replacement flyhalf Baden Kerr chipped behind the Crusader backs. Piutau got the bouncing ball just inside his half and gave to Moala who raced over 50 metres to score. Kerr converted. That made it 34-15 and a situation the Crusaders, seven times champions, were unused to.
Man of the Match: There was the energetic bravery of Luke Braid but our choice is Rene Ranger, playing his 50th match for the Blues - running hard, passing well, tacklinbg with efficiency and winning tackle turnovers like the best of fetchers. He was great and his did it all with a smile.
For the Blues:
Tries: Luatua, Halai 2, Braid, Moala
Cons: Weepu, Noakes, Kerr
For the Crusaders:
Pens: Carter 5
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (captain), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tom McCartney.
Replacements: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Angus Ta'avao, 18 Liaki Moli, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Bryn Hall, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Jackson Willison.
Crusaders: 15 Tom Taylor, 14 Adam Whitelock, 13 Robbie Fruean, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Israel Dagg, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read (captain), 7 Matt Todd, 6 George Whitelock, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Ben Funnell, 17 Joe Moody, 18 Dominic Bird, 19 Luke Whitelock, 20 Willi Heinz, 21 Tyler Bleyendaal, 22 Tom Marshall.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Jonathon White (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)