Blues 34 Chiefs 41
A titanic tussle ensued at North Harbour Stadium last night as the Blues and Chiefs gave their return derby real pep, and continued the Blues long series of heartbreaking losses.
Even if it was not for the defensive purist, the 41-34 win keeps the Chiefs at the top of the table on 58 points; the Blues remain 14th on 19.
Two attacking moments stood out. First, the Chiefs end-to-end try which gave them a seemingly impenetrable lead 34-20 midway through the second half. Asaeli Tikoirotuma finished the movement but the fact it had been initiated on the Chiefs' own line and the ball went through the hands like "pass the parcel" - including a Sonny Bill Williams' backhand pass - made it a revelation.
The Blues clawed back to 34-27 with a Rudi Wulf effort through the inside channel in his 50th Super Rugby match and, just when all looked lost, Rene Ranger shredded the Chiefs defence and bulldozed 50 metres with numerous desperate hands eventually forced to let go of his jersey.
Tikoirotuma completed his record-equalling fourth try to seal the match - another long-range effort when the Blues defence scrambled in vain. It was another reason to enjoy a rivetingly open game on a calm winter's evening.
In the first half the Chiefs lacked the same juggernaut quality that rolled oppositions earlier in the competition but found some of their rhythm in the second. They will welcome a break with the All Blacks series even if a number of their players will be summoned for international duty.
They still appeared to have the better of the Blues for momentum at the breakdown but the absence of injured co-captain Craig Clarke and Tanerau Latimer meant their defensive blanket was not as closely knit. Too many tackles were missed. The Blues sensed that porous defence.
One example was Ranger creating a try with a well-timed pass to Lachie Munro on the outside as the Chiefs opted for a smoko just before the break. Another was the Blues' first try to Francis Saili who left Aaron Cruden grasping in his wake.
Sonny Bill Williams had the better of his opposite Ma'a Nonu and this is one position All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will have to give considerable contemplation when he picks his opening XV for Ireland. On present form, albeit often behind a more attacking pack and dynamic inside backs, Williams looks like the form second-five. The way he slices backlines open, googlies the ball out of his hand and spins through tackles is more effective than Nonu.
Williams has been helped by a more consistent inside back combination of Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Aaron Cruden as opposed to the Blues' regular rotation in those positions.
The Blues showed spirit in the first half with an expansive game that tested the Chiefs on the flanks. The familiar offences crept in again at times: a dropped ball, a missed tackle, an offside, an unprotected man at the breakdown, a positional malfunction. Yet it was reassuring to see their flair returning.
Their season will be remembered for indiscipline and errors but there were moments of respite and the demonstration of genuine skill in front of what was technically a "home" crowd of 20,200 on a long weekend - even if the cacophony of cowbells suggested otherwise.
At one stage it had the feeling of Waikato's 1993 Ranfurly Shield challenge at Eden Park when a Mooloo invasion drowned out anything Auckland fans could offer. The Blues' powers-that-be will be thrilled with the crowd at the stadium. Discipline proved a problem for both teams. Blues blindside flanker Steven Luatua lifted Brodie Retallick over the horizontal in the tackle and Chiefs right wing Maritino Nemani did the same with Ranger. Both incidents had referee Chris Pollock hauling out yellow cards. Chiefs lock Mike Fitzgerald was also marched midway through the second half for punching in a ruck.
Blues 34 (F. Saili, L. Munro, R. Wulf, R. Ranger tries, Munro 4 cons, 2 pens), Chiefs 41 (A. Tikoirotuma 4, S. Williams tries, A. Cruden 5 cons, 2 pens) Halftime: 20-20.