Mark Telea reinforced his All Blacks credentials with four tries and the full array of tricks as the Blues inched closer to securing a home quarter-final with a rollercoaster victory over the Hurricanes at Eden Park.
In the prevailing theme of their patchy season, the Blues second victory against the Hurricanes this year wasn’t overly convincing. They were dominant for large periods, with their powerful pack laying the platform. Yet after establishing several comfortable leads they regularly let the Hurricanes back into the contest.
Cometh the hour and Telea stepped up for the Blues, though. As he did all night.
In the heavily congested battle for the outside backs Telea sent All Blacks coach Ian Foster another timely message by underlining his elusive qualities.
A standout in last week’s victory over the Reds in Brisbane, Telea staked his claim to retain the All Blacks right wing jersey with another compelling performance.
Telea’s doesn’t immediately strike you as a power athlete – yet his opening try came in that fashion as he brushed through Salesi Rayasi.
Telea was at his nonchalant best for his second strike as he produced a piece of individual brilliance to blitz through some soft defending from the Hurricanes forwards and sprint 40 metres to score.
With the Blues clinging to a 19-15 lead midway through the second half Telea again left Rayasi clutching at air as he stepped his way over for a hat-trick. Rayasi left the field with a knee injury after that attempted tackle – such is the difficulty of trying to stop Telea.
Three second half tries from the Hurricanes, two from Kini Naholo, had the visitors within striking distance only for Telea to pounce on a loose ball and claim his fourth to finally put the result beyond doubt.
With two clean breaks and 10 defenders beaten, Telea signalled his intent at the right time of the season.
This six-tries-to-four victory for the Blues temporarily lifted them to third and with the Highlanders at home to finish the regular season next week, all but secures a home quarter-final with a spot in the top four.
Leon MacDonald will be pleased with many aspects of his team’s display but given the Hurricanes sprayed 12 kickable points off the tee - Jordie Barrett missing 10 points and Brett Cameron two – the Blues coach will know this result was in the balance and that improvements are required.
A fifth defeat this season exposed the Hurricanes flaws – the faltering lineout top of the list – and leaves them contemplating the finals away from home. And with the Crusaders in Wellington next week, the Hurricanes could well suffer three straight losses before the playoffs.
The Blues pack set the tone by consistently punching through the Hurricanes line, and Zarn Sullivan’s left boot that kept the Blues at the right end of the field.
But in the second half the Blues handling and cohesion went to pieces. The Hurricanes were good enough to capitalise on those frequent errors through runaway tries but they largely lived off scraps and couldn’t maintain any form of sustained pressure.
For the most part the Hurricanes struggled to fire a shot. Their lineout capitulated, losing five throws in the first half as Asafo Aumua caught the yips.
The Hurricanes weren’t helped by losing Julian Savea to a chest injury in his first attempted tackle on Caleb Clarke. But given their poor ball security, lack of possession and struggles to exit their own half, Savea wouldn’t have been much use.
Against the run of play the Hurricanes eventually responded from the initial Blues onslaught through a one-two punch from their locking combination. Isaia Walker-Leawere sparked the movement with a powerful charge before offloading to James Blackwell who found Cam Riogard with a speculative pass. The Hurricanes were barely in the fight, and fortunate to turn nine points adrift at the break.
Billy Proctor and Naholo’s second half tries continued the theme of the Hurricanes attempting to fight back, but they were always at arm’s length.
The 21,000 that braved the elements are likely to return to Eden Park in the coming weeks as the Blues attempt to grasp momentum as the playoffs loom into view.
Blues 36 (Mark Telea 4, Hoskins Sotutu, Rieko Ioane tries; Harry Plummer 2 cons, Stephen Perofeta con)
Hurricanes 25 (Kini Naholo 2, Cam Roigard, Billy Proctor tries; Jordie Barrett con, pen)