The Chiefs fought back to beat the Blues 29-37 to open the 25th Super Rugby season with an impressive performance at Eden Park, Auckland.
Aaron Cruden kicked a last-gasp long-range penalty to cap off a superb return to the Chiefs and take away the losing bonus-point from a shell shocked Blues, who will wonder how they threw away this game.
This match was a ding-dong New Zealand derby as the two teams shared nine tries.
Solomon Alaimalo’s late try, with less than 11 minutes remaining, gave the visitors their first, and only, lead in the match.
The victory was no more than the Chiefs deserved after a chasting first 40 minutes.
Rieko Ioane, looking mean and hungry, grabbed a first-half brace and with some hard, straight running as the Blues dominated their opponents.
Samisoni Taukei’aho also collected a brace as the Chiefs fought back from a 14-point halftime deficit to level the game at 19-all 12 minutes after the restart thanks to Pita Sowakula’s try and Cruden’s conversion.
Karl Tu’inukuafe and Aiden Ross traded scores before the Chiefs finally managed to pull away when Alaimalo crossed for the visitor’s fifth try.
Cruden’s boot also started talking. His drop-goal kept the Chiefs in control, but Harry Plummer’s penalty, two minutes later, gave the hosts a sniff, however, it was to no avail.
The 31-year-old first five-eighth slotted a long-range penalty at the death to finish the game and leave the home team empty-handed and nothing to show for their efforts.
Blues dominate the first half, taking a commanding lead into the shed
The early start to the 25th Super Rugby season meant that the tournament begins in the second half of summer, allowing for some glorious warm weather rugby.
The Blues dominated the opening quarter, but they could not convert pressure into points as the handling errors mounted.
The Chiefs had to make 47 tackles inside 10 minutes, while the Blues enjoyed more than 90 per cent possession and territory.
The home team went close but was held-up in the sixth minute following an 11-phase early blitz.
Stephen Perofeta missed a penalty, but moments later, Tom Lamborn crossed for the first try of the Super Rugby season after a linebreak by Thomas Faiane.
The warm weather meant the two teams took ages to set scrums, taking on water at every opportunity.
A lean, mean Ioane doubled his team’s lead after 28 minutes from a well-worked backline move from an attacking scrum inside the Chiefs’ 22.
The winger took Jonathan Ruru’s inside pass and sped through a massive hole before crashing through two defenders to score.
The Chiefs, however, despite being on the backfoot, scored from a driving maul with only their second attack inside the Blues’ 22, when Taukei’aho flopped over the whitewash.
The euphoria was short-lived because another botched attack from a scrum, a minute before halftime, saw Warren Gatland’s side squander another set-piece try.
Ruru combined with Faiane to send Ioane under the posts, extending the lead after the hooter sounded.
Ioane ran over two defenders and carried another over the chalk to cap an excellent first forty minutes for the refreshed winger.
Leon MacDonald’s men were cruising.
Blues implode after halftime after Gatland makes tactical changes
Gatland, on his return home from Wales, will be ecstatic with the performance, and it was the coach who can take a lot of credit for the win thanks to his tactical nous.
The veteran coach made several changes to the second half but introducing Aaron Cruden to the proceeding to stabilise the backline and add some experience, was a master-stroke.
Cruden came on and immediately exerted the calm that comes with many years’ experience at a high level.
Kaleb Trask’s debut at first five was jittery and mistake-ridden (although this was not entirely the youngster’s fault), but the Chiefs could not get anything going until Trask was replaced.
It was a master-stroke because the former All Black stand-off changed the game.
Whatever the former Wales and British and Irish Lions coach said to his side, worked because they came out firing.
His side started bright and scored from another strong driving paul following only their third entry into the Blues’ 22.
Tyler Ardron collected the throw, set the maul, and the Chiefs powered their way over, Taukei’aho getting his second score of the game.
Cruden converted, bringing the game to within seven points at 19-12.
Sowakula crashed over from close range after Lachlan Boshier was stopped short.
Four ventures into the opposition’s 22, three tries. Easy as you like.
Cruden levelled before Perofeta missed a penalty from in front, on 54 minutes.
The young flyhalf was having a mixed day with the boot, which proved costly.
The 22-year-old kicked two from five, leaving eight points on the field in an eight-point ball-game.
Blues retake the lead but fade away as Chiefs go up a gear
The Blues had thrown away a commanding lead, missed a chance to retake the lead with the penalty, and were creaking as the Chiefs put them under pressure in the tight phases.
However, the hosts regained the lead with a quick-fire forwards attack of pick and goes that saw Tu’inukuafe crash over next to the posts to settle his side’s nerves, on the hour.
But the visitors were in no mood to let the game get away from them, scoring twice in quick succession through Ross, after Anton Lienert-Brown’s break to set up the try.
Sean Wainui won the turnover after some poor ball retention at the ruck from the Blues and put Lienert-Brown away down the right-hand touchline before being stopped short.
Taukei’aho carried to the five-metre line but was halted short.
Brad Weber arrived, kept his composure, putting the bulldozing prop away, thanks to a clever delayed pass.
With less than 12 minutes remaining, the Hamilton franchise took the lead for the first time in the game.
Cruden provides spark and Alaimalo, the hammer blow
Alaimalo scored in the corner to give his side the lead. After a lengthy TMO review, the try was awarded.
It was a hammer blow to the tiring Blues, who had run out of gas.
The try came from another lineout set-piece. The ball was shifted quickly through the backs, from Cruden, who sucked in two defenders before playing the supporting Shaun Stevenson on his outside.
Stevenson drew his opposite number Matt Duffie and sent the winger away. It was a stunning try.
The Chiefs continued their assault, won another penalty but decided to go for the corner, instead of taking a shot at goal. They were kept out by some staunch defence.
However, after going no-where, the clock ticking down, Cruden dropped back in the pocket and sealed the game with a drop-goal.
Plummer kicked a late penalty, but Cruden’s last-minute kick stole the losing bonus-point from the Blues and capped off a virtuoso from the bench.
Final Score: Blues 29 (19) Chiefs 37 (5)
Tries – Lamborn, R. Ioane (2), Tu’inukuafe
Pen – Plummer
Con – Perofeta (3)
Tries – Taukei’aho (2), Sowakula, Ross, Alaimalo
Pen – Cruden
Con – Cruden (3)
Drop – Cruden
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1: Paul Williams
Assistant Ref 2: Dan Waenga
TMO: Aaron Paterson
15 Matt Duffie, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Joe Marchant, 12 Thomas Faiane, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Stephen Perofeta, 9 Jonathan Ruru, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Tony Lamborn, 6 Dalton Papalii, 5 Tom Robinson, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Ray Niuia, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Ofa Tuungafasi, 19 Josh Goodhue, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Emoni Narawa.
15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Sean Wainui, 13 Quinn Tupaea, 12 Alex Nankivell, 11 Solomon Alaimalo, 10 Kaleb Trask, 9 Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, 8 Sam Cane (captain), 7 Mitchell Karpik, 6 Lachlan Boshier, 5 Mitchell Brown, 4 Tyler Ardron, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 1 Aidan Ross.
Replacements: 16 Bradley Slater, 17 Atu Moli, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Naitoa Ah Kuoi, 20 Pita Gus Sowakula, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Aaron Cruden, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.