The Blues came agonisingly close to turning the tables on their local rivals the Chiefs tonight before falling short 34-41 at North Harbour Stadium.
One pass, one missed tackle, one wrong call – it’s all that separated the two sides in an enthralling and pulsating match that had the bumper crowd of 20,200 on the edge of their seat right to the final whistle.
The Chiefs had lost just two games before tonight’s encounter, while the Blues had only won two, but you wouldn’t have known that 36 points separated the two sides given the tense arm wrestle that unfolded.
Rudi Wulf was back to celebrate his 50th Super Rugby game and he was joined by Rene Ranger, with both outside backs producing superb performances and showing the spark that injuries have snuffed out of the Blues this season.
There was effort, heart and determination in spades as the Blues turned in arguably their finest display of the season, but they just couldn’t find the killer blow as the Chiefs held on to claim the victory.
Nothing fires up the Blues like a local derby against the Chiefs, particularly when their little brothers are flying high at the top of the table, and they ripped into their work from the outset, combining enterprising attack with strong defence.†
Aaron Cruden gave the Chiefs the early lead with a penalty kick after three minutes before the Blues edged ahead with a try to young livewire Francis Saili.
Following a solid build up by the forwards who made good metres around the fringes, the ball was sent to Saili at first receiver who put on a lovely step and fend to get on the outside of Cruden before lurching out to ground the ball over the try line.
But as has been the Achilles heel of the Blues all season, they took the pressure off the Chiefs straight from the re-start and allowed the visitors back into the game.
When Cruden couldn’t find the way through the Blues solid defence, he dropped in a deft grubber which rolled into the in-goal, and with no-one at home Fijian flyer Asaeli Tikoirotuma dived on it over the line to score the first of his four tries.
Cruden and Munro both traded penalty goals in a frenetic paced match before more simple errors opened the door for the Chiefs to pounce.
When Sam Cane managed to knock the ball out of Tony Woodcock’s grasp, Kane Thompson charged downfield, and from the ensuing ruck Sonny Bill Williams showed all his class to spin out of three tackles to score.
Steven Luatua and Tino Nemani were both sinbinned within minutes of each other for dangerous tackles, opening up the match even more as the Blues finished the first half strongly.
Munro knocked over a penalty and then crossed the whitewash for a try on the stroke of halftime to draw the scores level.
It was a sublime five pointer from the Blues and a rare glimpse of what they can do when they’re on song, as Nonu fired out a pass to Ranger who broke through the defence and offloaded to Munro.
However the Chiefs came out firing in the second half to show why they’ve dropped just two games this season as some lovely Cruden footwork, a great Sonny Bill Williams offload and a draw and pass from Liam Messam saw Tikoirotuma crash over.
The Fijian flyer was in again 12 minutes later as the Chiefs turned defence into attack, turning the ball over in their own 22 and spinning it wide as backs and forwards combined to see the left winger bag his hat-trick.
Rudi Wulf celebrated 50 games for the Blues with a well worked try before Rene Ranger stole the show with the best individual try of the game after 62 minutes.
Picking up the ball from the base of the ruck, Ranger raced 65 metres and saw off three would be Chiefs defenders to score a scintillating try and draw the scores level with 15 minutes to go.
But Tikoirotuma, who had tormented the Blues all night long, bagged the match winning try to sink the Blues.
Pat Lam’s men did have their chances to salvage a draw in the dieing stages of the game, but the final pass just didn’t go to hand as the Chiefs clung on to celebrate their 12th victory of the season.