The Blues ended the Crusaders’ two-year unbeaten Super 14 run against New Zealand opposition, when they beat the defending champions, the Crusaders, 34-25 on Friday.
The two teams scored three tries each in this Round One match at Eden Park, in Auckland, which was also the opening match of the new season.
But in the end the boot of first five-eighths Isakeli Nacewa proved to be the difference – as the No.12 kicked two conversions and five penalties to secure his team a vital win over the six-time Super Rugby champions.
It was a patchy match with some sparkling moments, but fading away as the game wore on.
But it was played at a fast pace, at least early on and the Blues thoroughly deserved their victory for superior tactics and execution.
They whacked the Crusaders for the loose ball and so left them with scraps of possession. The Crusaders, strangely, were insecure on defence and shaky when handling. They may actually have been flattered by the score.
To many it was a surprise because the Blues have a poor Super rugby record against New Zealand sides, whereas the champion Crusaders last lost to a New Zealand side in 2004.
This was the first Super match played with the new four-command scrumming procedure. There were, till the end when the Blues were down to seven forwards, few resets though it seemed that there was a definite advantage for the team not putting in the ball.
Asked about it after the match, Corey Flynn, the Crusaders’ hooker, said that it was something to live with as it was, after all, in the interests of safety to front row players.
Paul Honiss blew the first whistle of the first match of the 2007 Super 14 and Isa Nacewa kicked off get the competition going.
The Crusaders started off like a house on fire, looking like champions who intended staying champions. But oddly they had just two bits of the half – the first few minutes and the last few minutes. In between the Blues dominated the match and it was a surprise that they were only 19-13 up at the break after the sides had each scored one try.
The Blues try was a wonderful piece of creative play, the Crusaders’ try made possible by a Blues’ blue.
There was a great deal of kicking in the first half, better by the Blues than by the Crusaders, but when play broke out it was fast and furious.
The start suggested it would be when play went from kick-off for 3 minutes 57 seconds before the first whistle went. Mind you play can go on forever if the whistle stays silent for infringement.
When the Blues were off-side, Brent ward, who plays for Auckland in the national provincial championship, kicked a long-range penalty. When Kieran Read played the ball illegally at a tackle Nacewa levelled the scores. When Troy Flavell rolled over a tackle and onto the ball gauche fashion, Ward put the Crusaders back in front.
Flavell was captaining the Blues and had some wonderful moments on the charge. Discipline has not been his strong point and after conceding two penalties in the first half he was sent to the sin bin with nine minutes to go for stomping on a knee and appearing to throw a punch. His scrum-half Steve Devine may well have been lucky not to have joined him for stamping, especially now that referees worldwide have been instructed to take strong action against feet on players.
Even after Flavell went to sit and watch, the 14 Blues kept a grip on the match and kept the Crusaders pinned in their own territory and looking anything but the smooth machine of yore.
In fact the only scoring opportunity in this period of play, as the rain started seeming out of the evening sky, belonged to the Blues – a missed penalty attempt but Isa Nacewa whose goal-kicking in the match was a definite positive for the home side.
At 6-3, the Blues scored a splendid try. It started not far from their 22 on the left with a brilliant bit of counterattack by George Pisi who seemed in desperate trouble till he scrambled to his feet and started running. The ball went to the far right and then came left. Anthony Tuitavake cut back towards his right off a switch with Nacewa and with great strength burst through four would-be tacklers to get a short pass to Flavell on his left. As he was being tackled the big lock controlled the ball with his left hand and slipped a delicate pass to Isaia Toeava on his left, and the young centre had an easy passage to the crossbar. Nacewa converted. 13-6.
Nacewa then kicked three penalties to make the score 19-6. The middle one of the three was also courtesy of a recent instruction to referees who have been told not to tolerate dissent. The referee penalised Mose Tuiali’i for holding on at the tackle. He verbalised his disapproval and was marched ten metres, as was Angus MacDonald of the Blues in the second half. But Tuiali’i’s dissent was costly as it brought the Blues into goal-kicking range.
Just before half-time the Crusaders got a try which had an element of good fortune. They eschewed a kick at goal in favour of a five-metre line-out which Flavell promptly stole off them, but then from the maul halfback David Gibson kicked into John Afoa. The ball flew back towards the Blues’ line where Kevin O’Neill grabbed it and from the tackle/ruck Andrew Ellis sent skipper Corey Flynn over for the try. That made the score 19-13 at the break.
The Crusaders started the second half as they had started the first and as in the first half the enthusiasm fizzled out. There was a strong moment from Casey Laulala but then the Blues scored.
Flavell bumped off a Crusader and slipped an underarm pass to Tuitavake who bumped off another rickety Crusader and then sped downfield, turning in from the touch-line on his left and then playing in to Rudi Wulf who had come on in the first half when Toeava went off with an arm/shoulder injury. Oddly Nacewa missed the conversion.
It was not long before the Crusaders had a sortie into Blues territory and scored a try. Flynn tapped a penalty which took them right up to the line. From there they went left where Tuiali’i cut back inside and scored. 24-20 after Stephen Brett converted.
Luke McAlister came on for Sam Tuitupou and produced a great moment when, from a line-out, he broke through two rickety tackles and gave to Doug Howlett who sped some 30 metres to score at the posts – looking like the old Howlett with a bush of hair. 31-20.
The Crusaders were confined to their own territory but scored from there with a piece of Carter-esque brilliance by young Brett. He hesitated, drawing opponents closer, chipped and collected in midfield. He ran and then threw a long pass of some 25 metres to his right to Rico Gear who scored the try. 31-25.
It seemed strange that the Crusaders were in the hunt.
The last of the scoring was a penalty by Nacewa which came as the Blues barged, bashed and pushed downfield with the best bit of mauling in the match.
Man of the Match: Troy Flavell blotted his copybook, Luke McAlister did not play for long enough, Isa Nacewa kicked well at goal, but had a few injudicious moments with the boot and our Man of the Match hard, incisive Anthony Tuitavake who set up two great tries.
For the Blues:
Tries: Toeava, Wulf, Howlett
Cons: Nacewa 2
Pens: Nacewa 5
For the Crusaders:
Tries: Flynn, Tuiali’i, Gear
Cons: Brett 2
Pens: Ward 2
Yellow card: Troy Flavell (Blues, 72 – foul play)
Blues: 15 George Pisi, 14 Doug Howlett,13 Isaia Toeava, 12 Sam Tuitupou, 11 Anthony Tuitavake, 10 Isakeli Nacewa, 9 David Gibson, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Angus MacDonald, 5 Troy Flavell (c), 4 Greg Rawlinson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Derren Whitcombe, 1 Saimone Taumoepeau
Replacements: 16 Chris Heard, 17 Nick White, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Justin Collins, 20 Steve Devine, 21 Luke McAlister, 22 Rudi Wulf
Crusaders: 15 Brent Ward, 14 Rico Gear, 13 Caleb Ralph, 12 Casey Laulala, 11 Scott Hamilton, 10 Stephen Brett, 9 Andrew Ellis, 8 Mose Tuiali’i, 7 Johnny Leo’o, 6 Kieran Read, 5 Kevin O’Neill, 4 Ross Filipo, 3 Campbell Johnstone, 2 Corey Flynn (captain), 1 Ben Franks
Replacements: 16 Ti’i Paulo, 17 Wyatt Crockett, 18 Jake Paringatai, 19 Peter Nixon, 20 Kevin Senio, 21 Tusi Pisi, 22 Rua Tipoki
Referee: Paul Honiss (New Zealand)
Touch judges: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand), Gary Wise (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)