By Grant Chapman
If the Blues expected an end-of-season overseas jaunt against outclassed opponents, they emerged sadly mistaken and thoroughly beaten 48-21 by a rampant Sunwolves side in Tokyo.
With no chance of qualifying for the Super Rugby post-season, but with memories of their famous victory over the British & Irish Lions still fresh, the NZ side were probably hoping for an easy win to build towards next season.
The Sunwolves seemed just the team to provide that, having conceded an average of 55 points in the last five outings, all losses.
But the Japanese franchise showed their incredible spirit and determination, running in six second-half tries to overwhelm their shellshocked guests.
With stalwart forwards Charlie Faumuina and Steven Luatua heading overseas, this was far from an ideal send-off for two world-class players.
Played at a reckless pace, both sides tried to play an expansive style, often letting themselves down in the final execution.
The Blues were very fortunate to lead 21-14 at half-time, relying on an unspotted forward pass and an 80-metre interception for two of their three tries.
In the ninth minute, Luatua stormed down the right touch-line and his one-handed infield pass seemed to drift well forward, but was overlooked by match officials. After several more phases, captain James Parsons fell over the line to open the scoring.
Only a couple of minutes later, flanker Akira Ioane showed incredible strength to break the Sunwolves defence, with Luatua providing the final pass for lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti to cross for the second try. First-five Ihaia West converted both to give his side a 14-0 advantage.
But the Japanese hosts were determined to contribute to the helter skelter spectacle and were next to score, with Tim Lafaele plunging over under the posts and Yu Tamura converting.
They were desperately unlikely not to cross again over the following 10 minutes and were eventually undone by their own enterprise, as Blues fullback Michael Collins interrupted a back-line raid and sprinted the field for an intercept try.
Right on half-time, the Sunwolves struck again through Keisuke Uchida, with Tamura's conversion narrowing the deficit to just seven points.
The home team drew even closer 12 minutes after the restart, when the Blues defence made a hash of a kick bobbling behind their goal-line and with his first touch, substitute Ryohei Yamanaka was on hand to recover the loose ball for a try.
When Tamura missed the conversion from wide out, the NZ outfit were still two points up, but were soon under pressure again, when All Black flanker Jerome Kaino, who had replaced Ioane at half-time, was yellow-carded for a high tackle.
The Sunwolves immediately capitalised, winning an attacking lineout and piling into the maul. When the maul collapsed, referee Rasta Rasivhenge signaled a penalty try and Japanese had their first lead of the game at 26-21.
Moments later, they bullied an undermanned Blues scrum close to the line and replacement halfback Kaito Shigeno darted over to extend the margin to double figures.
Lafaele soon had his second try ... and then his third, before Yoshitaka Tokunaga providing the icing on the Sunwolves' best win (and only their third) in their second seasons.
Sunwolves 48 (Tim Lafaele 3, Keisuke Uchida, Ruyohei Yamanaka, Kaito Shigeno, Yoshitaka Tokunaga tries; penalty try; Yu Tamara 3 conversions, Jumpei Ogura conversion)
Blues 21 (James Parsons, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti & Michael Collins tries; Ihaia West 3 conversions)