It was tight, it was tense and it was tough. But the Blues finally have themselves a Super Rugby title after an 18-year wait between sups from the champagne bottle.
The Blues did it the hard way in the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final, struggling mightily to break down a magnificent Highlanders defence in an absorbing, if hardly free-flowing, contest In front of a crowd of 36,000 at Eden Park.
But they held their nerve when it really mattered to prevail 23-15 after the visitors had stunned their dominant hosts by taking a 15-13 lead with a quarter of an hour to go. Substitute Harry Plummer nailed a crucial go-ahead penalty from a tough angle in the 70th minute and then replacement loose forward Blake Gibson sealed the deal with a match-winning try five minutes from time that Plummer coolly converted from wide.
Blues land killer blow
It was not the classic high-scoring contest we often see in Super Rugby. But who cared? This was a final. For all the marbles. And an opportunity for the victor to add an all-important title to their Wiki entries.
And, really, the Blues need it the most, after going 18 long years since their last triumph when they won the third of their now four titles over the Crusaders at this same venue. The victory saw Leon MacDonald’s men complete their 2021 commitments with a seven-match win streak and their fifth win in the last six against the southerners.
But, boy, was it hard earned. The home side had enough ball to win this in a canter, but the Highlanders simply would not let them covert that pressure and possession into the points they were after.
The visitors dug in splendidly, hung in the match with a paucity of possession in the first half, to trail by just seven (13-6) at the break, and then took the lead as they continued to collect their points in increments of three.
But these Blues have been working hard to shake their deserved underachievers tag. They have been looking to add some steel, some poise and some precision to their game.
And when it was in the balance over that final quarter of an hour it was the home side who stepped up and made the plays that mattered. No 8 Hoskins Sotutu was magnificent at the end, forcing a turnover at the breakdown and then launching the attack that netted Gibson his game-clincher.
Harry Plummer was also ice-cool off the bench, nailing a tough late penalty and then a crucial sideline conversion to put the seal on the triumph. The Blues were dominant at scrum time, too, and got another big game out of Dalton Papalii in the loose and departing lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti in the tight.
TJ Faiane was quality in the backline, Bryce Heem and Mark Telea ran hard and Fin Christie ran the show well from the base. Rieko Ioane was also a menace with his power running throughout.
The visitors were all character and grit and determination. They made all sorts of tackles and hung in the contest when everything suggested they should be toast. They were not going away without one heck of a fight.
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All right, it’s a title with somewhat of an asterisk, with an all-Australian diet through the qualifying rounds, and a short, sharp six-week format, but it’s one the Blues will gleefully accept.
After somewhat of a shaky start, and an early penalty for Mitch Hunt, the Blues finally found their rhythm and struck with the game’s only try of the first half in the 17th minute to cap an excellent period of pressure from the home side.
The Blues won a succession of penalties around the quarter-hour mark, and punished the visitors under advantage from the last of them when Otere Black’s crosskick found Telea with all sorts of space wide on the left for the 7-3 lead. The wing had time to prop back, gather, and then step the outmatched Josh Ioane for the score, which Black converted from the sideline.
Dixon escapes with yellow card
That was all the try-scoring action for the half, but not the talking points. Highlanders hooker Ash Dixon was yellow-carded in the 24th minute for a shoulder to the head of Black after he had passed. Remarkably, referee Mike Fraser found something to decide on the lesser of the two penalties at his disposal.
A half-dozen minutes later Blues wing Bryce Heem was also under the TMO spotlight for a challenge on Hunt in the air, but got away with just a penalty when a tangle with Jona Narkei was factored in.
The Highlanders would probably have been happy to go into the sheds down just 13-6 after the Blues dominated possession (66 per cent), territory (70 per cent) and were 5-0 in clean breaks, 15-5 in defenders beaten and 54-21 in rucks won. That scrambling Landers defence was at its very best.
Highlanders deliver stirring haka challenge
The plucky visitors were going nowhere after the restart and despite the Blues continuing to dominate possession the southerners managed to turn momentum on its head with three straight penalties between the 58th and 65th minutes to take the lead, 15-13. Suddenly the Blues were wedged between a rock and a hard place.
And then up stepped Sotutu and Plummer and Gibson and the celebrations could begin. The Blues are once again Super Rugby champions, even if the Crusaders might have something to ay about that.
Blues 23 (Mark Telea, Blake Gibson tries; Otere Black pen, con; Harry Plummer 2 pens, con), Highlanders 15 (Mitch Hunt 4 pens; Josh Ioane pen). HT: 13-6.