Blues beat Western Force 18-22 after a feisty Super Rugby Pacific game at HBF Park, Perth.
An off-colour Blues held off a fiery Western Force fightback to claim a fortunate Trans-Tasman win, and stay top of the Super Rugby Pacific standings in Western Australia.
Another win, albeit a close one, increases the New Zealand side’s points-tally as they nail a ninth win on the bounce.
The three-time Super Rugby champions held off an incredible late fightback by the opposition.
Trailing by 14 points with less than a quarter of an hour remaining, the home team scored twice to set up a thrilling finale.
Jeremy Thrush and Bo Abra’s unconverted tries gave the Perth team a fighting chance.
Bayley Kuenzle missed both conversions though, and that made the difference as the Force pushed for the win.
Had any one of the three conversations been successful, the hosts might have won the game, especially as the visitors leaked kickable penalties at the death.
The Australians went 3m26s over 26 phases, but could not find a way through the blue wall.
The long wait continues for the Western Force
Sam Darry, Akira Ioane, and AJ Lam scored for the table-toppers. This was no walkover, despite what the historic numbers say about this fixture.
Beuaden Barrett kicked a penalty and two conversions, but the unusually blunt Blues did not score after halftime.
In fact, the tourists did not score a point after the 30th minute.
Kuenzle added a penalty but did not convert Manasa Mataele’s 22nd Super Rugby try, while Thrush, Abra dotted down after the break for Tim Sampson’s side.
The Auckland-based franchise has been rolling teams with one of their best runs since 1997, but this one went close.
Leon MacDonald’s men have, however, notched 16 wins in their last 17 Super Rugby matches, and are now undefeated in 10 games against the Perth team.
Conversely, the beleaguered Western Force have now lost 13 of their last 15 Super Rugby games, including their previous four in a row.
Moreover, the Force has now lost their last 22 consecutive games against New Zealand opponents. They last won against the Chiefs back in 2014.
The Blues, on the other hand, has been on fire against Australian teams, winning their last seven Trans-Tasman clashes.
But this was close.
Western Force struck early, but the Blues fought back to take a commanding 22-8 lead at halftime
The Blues took a deserved three-tries-to-one 14-point lead into the changerooms, but it could – and should have – been more.
Darry, Ioane, and Lam gave the Kiwis a two-goal lead as the visitors looked to end the game in the first stanza.
Kuenzle opened the scoring for the home team in the fourth minute. Darry went to the bin, and Sampson’s men took advantage.
The Force went 19 phases before Issak Fines-Leleiwasa’s double skip-pass out wide to Mataele, who beats AJ Lam to the corner, increased the lead.
Barrett puts his side on the board before Ioane’s first try of the year levelled proceedings.
An 18-phase attack finished with Darry, back on the field, bashing himself over the chalk from around a ruck and near the try line.
Barrett knocked over the extras to give the Blues a slight two-point lead going into the second quarter.
As the Blues often do, they struck again after the restart with another converted try.
The visitors won a turnover inside the opposition’s half after Reesjan Pasitoa got isolated.
McDonald’s men went patiently through the phases before Ioane, in his first game of the season, barged through Tom Robertson and Izack Rodda to score.
The game was getting away from the hosts, who conceded for the third time in 12 minutes.
Lam collected Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s outrageous chicken-wing pass and dived over to score in the corner.
Tuivasa-Sheck sucked in Fines-Leleiwasa and managed to offload to Lam, who finished expertly with one hand inside the flag.
The tourists went close after the hooter, but poor handling cost them a fourth.
The Blues hang on for the win despite a dire second stanza showing against a spirited Western Force
Santiago Medrano went to the bin after the restart, but his card did not cost any points. Somehow, the Force kept the Blues out of the in-goal.
Anton Segner got held up for a goalline dropout when he looked like scoring off the back of an attacking scrum.
After 23 second-half minutes, points were scored again.
The Western Australians had been camped inside the Auckland side’s 22 for a while, and the Blues were fortunate not to have been issued with a couple of yellow cards.
Kurt Eklund could have been off for a high hit on Robertson, while multiple offences near the try line, went unpunished by a very lenient referee.
Thrush, without his trademark handlebar moustache, barged his way through a sea of blue to cut the gap to nine.
Kuenzle could not convert. With time running down, the home team camped inside the opposition’s 22.
The Force kicked to the 22 and set up an attack on the try line. Several phases later, Abra scored his debut Super Rugby try.
Kuenzle’s conversion attempt hit the post and bounced away leaving his side needing a try to win with three minutes remaining.
With five seconds to play, Ricky Riccitelli threw a skew lineout to give the Force the last shot.
Sampson’s side won a penalty and kicked to the corner: It was now or never.
This sparked an incredible period of play as the Force looked for a famous upset. Heroic defending, however, saw the Blues hold on for a fortunate win.
Final Score: Western Force 18 (8) Blues 22 (22)
Tries – Mataele, Thrush, Abra
Pen – Kuenzle
Cards – Medrano (Yellow, 43′)
Tries – Darry, A. Ioane, Lam
Pen – B. Barrett
Con – B. Barrett (2)
Cards – Darry (Yellow, 5′)
Referee: Angus Gardner
Assistant Ref 1: Graham Cooper
Assistant Ref 2: Jordan Kaminski
TMO: Kyle Burnett
Western Force: 15 Jake Strachan, 14 Toni Pulu, 13 Kyle Godwin, 12 Bayley Kuenzle, 11 Manasa Mataele, 10 Reesjan Pasitoa, 9 Issak Fines-Leleiwasa, 8 Ollie Callan, 7 Kane Koteka, 6 Fergus Lee-Warner, 5 Izack Rodda, 4 Ryan McCauley, 3 Santiago Medrano, 2 Feleti Kaitu’u (captain), 1 Tom Robertson.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Ready, 17 Bo Abra, 18 Greg Holmes, 19 Jeremy Thrush, 20 Tim Anstee, 21 Alex Masibaka, 22 Ian Prior, 23 Richard Kahui.
Blues: 15 Zarn Sullivan, 14 AJ Lam, 13 Bryce Heem, 12 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Anton Segner, 7 Dalton Papalii (captain), 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Sam Darry, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 Kurt Eklund, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Ricky Riccitelli, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 James Tucker, 20 Adrian Choat, 21 Taufa Funaki, 22 Tanielu Tele’a, 23 Mark Telea.