Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Reds have true grit to deny Lam's men

Mike Harris has been in top form for the Reds, and he is looking forward to a midfield battle against Ma'a Nonu. Photo / Getty Images
Mike Harris has been in top form for the Reds, and he is looking forward to a midfield battle against Ma'a Nonu. Photo / Getty Images

The Reds last night became the latest side to inflict mounting misery on the Blues.

It was not easy for the visitors, who have been struggling with their own problems and four defeats in their previous five outings.

But for the Blues, this was their eighth loss in nine games, a blight that matched the franchise's worst number of defeats in coach Pat Lam's first season in 2009.

They still have seven games to run this year and a torrent of further indignation to cope with.

In a season of dross, the Blues made their worst start of the year, with a crowd of 12,111 braving the poor weather to watch the matching rugby.

Reds outside back Digby Ioane had been fretting for five weeks after being banned for a dangerous tackle. He took just 44 seconds to remedy that absence as the Reds scored from their kickoff.

They reclaimed their kick, Ben Lucas' pinpoint crosskick found an unmarked Rob Simmons, and he bashed to the line, where Ioane wrestled the ball across.

If that stunned the crowd, worse was to follow.

Luke Morahan ran into the backline, finding stacks of space as the Blues threequarter line went AWOL on defence. The Reds fullback kept running and, with an overlap, simply dummied and scored.

It was far too easy for the Reds and an embarrassing start from the Blues. A pick-up group down the local park would have been more switched on.

The Blues looked like they had scarcely met rather than being the Super 15 squad that had begun to assemble before Xmas and got into full training after the New Year.

The halfback duel was all Will Genia. He had the bulk of the useful possession and showed his time and class with the ball.

Meanwhile, the Blues offered a strange early strategy, kicking a great deal and without any great effect. Piri Weepu slogged a few and there looked to be apathy in the ranks.

Perhaps it was shock that the Reds could be so precise.

Eventually the Blues found some sting in the second quarter. New skipper Luke Braid turned down a kick at goal to attack from a lineout and he made the decision stick, skirting around the subsequent ruck to beat three defenders.

Another attacking wave came and should have created a try if the ball had been released to the wing. Instead the Blues banged away in close where the Reds held on illegally.

Gareth Anscombe's penalty was the only reward but it was soon matched by Mike Harris, who nailed an impressive 42m kick to restore the visitors' 15-8 margin at the interval.

It ballooned soon after the break when Genia's mastery flummoxed the Blues defenders. He eyed them and floated a pass to Dom Shipperley, who had too much agility for covering tightforward Charlie Faumuina.

The Blues struggled with their attack as they tried to outgun and outmanouevre the visitors. Ma'a Nonu was the dangerman, but the Reds sat tight on him, often using a double-team tackle to shut down his pace or force the Blues into over-ambitious cutout passes.

Nonu was busy himself on defence, often leading the charge and showing his teammates some of the endeavour that had been missing for much of their season.

It was Nonu's best effort of the Super 15, but in what seemed a strange move, unless he was injured or ill, Nonu was replaced by Benson Stanley after 55 minutes.

If that substitution seemed surprising, it was even stranger that lock Ali Williams stayed on the park for 63 minutes as he seemed to be struggling with a flat-line effort.

Stanley did make a break, and from the ruck Anscombe set a delightful grubber to the in-goal where Genia swooped from the clouds to avert a try.

It was that sort of genius from the Reds halfback which proved the difference on a night where two desperate teams slogged away with more grit than clarity.

Reds 23

Tries: D Ioane, L Morahan, D Shipperley
Con: M Harris
Pens: M Harris

Blues 11

Tries: L Braid
Pens: G Anscombe (2)
Halftime: 15-8.

- NZ Herald

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