Blues beat Highlanders 35-6 in the third Super Rugby Pacific 2022 quarter-final at Eden Park, Auckland.
Beauden Barrett, often the Highlanders’ tormenter, tore apart a lacklustre Landers as the (14-1) Blues booked a home Super Rugby Pacific semi-final in the City of Sails.
Barrett bagged a brace and set up AJ Lam’s 58th-minute try with another dazzling display at first receiver.
The All Blacks playmaker has been in outstanding form in recent weeks. Barrett has been directly involved in eight tries in his last three Super Rugby games (4 tries, 4 assists).
The 31-year-old veteran flyhalf made 77 metres from 11 runs with a couple of linebreaks and offloads while beating five defenders as he ripped up Tony Brown’s defence.
The Ioane brothers both had games to remember. Akira scored while Rieko claimed two assists.
Both siblings made 63 metres from 12 and 13 runs respectively. They even made seven tackles apiece to go with their playmaking skills. Crazy.
Before winning Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, the Blues had not made the playoffs since 2011.
The Blues will take on either the Brumbies or Hurricanes in Auckland next weekend after this impressive performance.
The north island side’s record at home is superb though, winning 10 of 11 knockout/playoff matches since 1996 – they will be heavy favourites whomever they play.
Leon MacDonald’s charges have now won 14 matches in a row after losing their opening game.
The Blues sliced and diced the hapless Highlanders, scoring 35 unanswered points as the Auckland franchise romped to victory.
The home team also kept the visitors scoreless for the last hour of this one-sided New Zealand derby.
Akira Ioane, who could have scored twice, got his side on the board in the 32nd minute. Barrett’s 13-minute brace followed before Lam and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck finished the job.
Stephen Perofeta kept on Bryn Gatland’s tail with a flawless kicking display. Perofeta landed all five conversions for 10 points.
Marty Banks, who had a nightmare, kicked two goals; however, the flyhalf was directly involved in three of the opposition’s tries.
Banks lost two high balls that led to tries as well as not finding touch on several occasions. He also missed a drop kick from in front when he should have kept the ball in hand.
The game changed, however, after Andrew Makalio’s 22nd-minute red card when the Landers led.
The card turned the game as the hosts scored twice despite Banks slotting his second goal to make it 6-0.
It would not have mattered, because Barrett’s breathtaking display dictated the result.
The Blues struck twice in quick succession to overturn a six-point deficit to lead 14-6 at halftime
Both teams had to deal with late injuries to their captains.
Blues captain Dalton Papalii was a late withdrawal because of appendicitis.
The Highlanders were also dealt a blow when skipper Aaron Smith pulled out late because of a groin injury before kick-off.
Ioane and Barrett both scored within three minutes of each other at the end of the first half after two Banks penalties gave the Highlanders a 6-0 advantage.
Brown’s men did well to lead, and might have led had more but for a missed Banks drop goal and poor handling.
To be fair, both sides struggled in the slippery conditions as the dew dictated play. Each team shared 10 turnovers apiece to go with seven handling errors apiece.
Both sets of players slipped into tackles and passes went astray because of the wet conditions.
The south islanders started well, but they will rue not scoring tries, especially because of their territorial advantage and the amount of possession they had in the first quarter.
But the danger signs were there for the Dunedin men as the Auckland team searched for a breakthrough.
Akira Ioane crashed through to score after an 11-phase attack, but he got held up. The officials, however, went back for foul play and offside.
Andrew Makalio’s red card changed the momentum of the game as the 15-man Blues increased the intensity
Makalio got sent off for a shoulder hit to the head of Tom Robinson, which changed the momentum of the game.
The reckless hooker laughed as he left the field, but this was no laughing matter. His card cost his side 14 points, and possibly the game.
Barrett kicked to the corner, but Josh Dickson stole the ball from the maul, and the Otago side cleared.
Banks doubled the lead on the half-hour, but disaster was about to strike.
Lam and Hoskins Sotutu kickstarted the attack before some quick ball at the ruck set up the score.
Akira Ioane took Rieko’s pass and darted for the try line to score his 22nd Super Rugby try. Perofeta’s conversion gave his side a lead they would not relinquish.
A double-movement from James Tucker saw his score chalked off. The Highlanders were lucky to escape without conceding.
But by now, the Blues are cutting the Otago men apart.
Banks committed the cardinal sin of not finding touch after his side won a relieving penalty inside their 22.
Perofeta countered from deep. Barrett sliced through some weak tackling, fending off Ethan de Groot, before racing away to score under the posts.
Perofeta added the extras as the hosts went into the break with a solid lead.
Brilliant Beauden Barrett takes the game away from the Highlanders with a try and assists in the third quarter
The Blues struck straight after the break. Barrett began to assert his authority after halftime, the visitors had no answer to his majestic playmaking.
No player has scored more points versus the Highlanders than Barrett (186 points, 14 more than Dan Carter), and he carved the enemy apart.
Sotutu’s flat pass put Tuivasa-Sheck through a gap. The 28-year-old second-five raced forward before popping to Rieko Ioane.
Rieko Ioane’s second assist sent Barrett away under the sticks for his 40th Super Rugby try.
Banks dropped Barrett’s bomb and Lam gathered to score. Banks’ horrid day could not get any worse.
Perofeta landed both conversions to make it 28-6 on the hour.
The Highlanders went close, but Mosese Dawai got tackled out. A penalty allowed the visitors to kick to the corner.
An 11-phase attack from the lineout ended in a debacle when Connor Garden-Bachop dropped an uncontested pass with the try line at his mercy.
Another certain Highlanders’ try ended because of a stray pass going into touch. This was a truly abysmal attacking display to go with a dodgy defence.
The hits kept coming as Brown’s men faded. Another Banks’ mistake under the high ball led to the Blues’ fifth five-pointer.
Tuivasa-Sheck took Sotutu’s pass and cut inside the defenders to score his maiden Super Rugby try.
Lam beat Banks – again – to win a high ball to start the scoring attack. Perofeta made no mistake.
The Blues march on.
Final Score: Blues 35 (14) Highlanders 6 (6)
Tries – A. Ioane, B. Barrett (2), Lam, Tuivasa-Sheck
Con – Perofeta (5)
Pen – Banks (2)
Cards – Makalio (Red, 22′)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant Ref 2: Stu Curran
TMO: James Leckie
Blues: 15 Stephen Perofeta, 14 Bryce Heem, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 11 Mark Telea, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Adrian Choat, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Tom Robinson, 4 James Tucker, 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Soane Vikena, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Luke Romano, 20 Joshua Goodhue, 21 Sam Nock, 22 AJ Lam, 23 Zarn Sullivan.
Highlanders: 15 Connor Garden-Bachop, 14 Fetuli Paea, 13 Thomas Umaga-Jensen, 12 Scott Gregory, 11 Mosese Dawai, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Folau Fakatava, 8 Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, 7 Billy Harmon (captain), 6 Hugh Renton, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Bryn Evans, 3 Jermaine Ainsley, 2 Andrew Makalio, 1 Ethan de Groot.
Replacements: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Saula Mau, 19 Max Hicks, 20 Shannon Frizell, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Liam Coombes-Fabling, 23 Denny Solomona.