Moana Pasifika 30
Just when you suspect the Blues are beginning to quietly find form, they flatter to deceive once again.
Moana Pasifika lit the fuse on their cross-town rivalry with the Blues by doing everything but pull off one of the biggest upsets in Super Rugby history on Saturday night.
No one gave Moana, winless through 10 games this season, a chance of upsetting their highly-credentialed domineering big brother - yet the second-year franchise stormed Eden Park to hand Leon MacDonald’s men a mighty scare that should serve as a serious wake-up call.
In keeping with the largely frustrating, fluctuating theme of their campaign this year, the Blues needed a last-minute penalty try to escape an embarrassing home defeat.
Moana deserve immense credit. Trailing 17-3 following three first-half tries Moana could have folded. They instead responded by flipping the script and scoring 22 unanswered points to have the Blues on the rack until the final play.
Since losing to Chiefs in Hamilton the Blues stitched together comfortable wins against the Rebels and Waratahs, notching 50 points against both, and a notable victory over the Drua in Fiji.
With this result the Blues banked four successive wins but no one will be fooled after a bumbling performance in which their handling and discipline all proved costly.
After at one stage being on the wrong side of a 14-8 penalty count, Australian referee Graham Cooper helped the Blues escape by sending Moana captain Solomone Funaki and lock Michael Curry to the bin in the dying stages, and then awarding the penalty try after sustained scrum pressure.
While the Blues should regain Beauden Barrett next week, after he was a late withdrawal with an Achilles injury, this is not a performance that will strike fear into the Crusaders.
The Blues move to second, temporarily at least with the Brumbies to play the Rebels on Sunday, but their failure to secure a bonus point could come back to haunt them in the quest for home finals matches.
In the tense second half Blues lock Sam Darry’s try regained the lead for the Blues before Moana second-five D’Angelo Leuila landed a clutch 45-metre penalty on the angle to put the rank outsiders in front again.
After Dalton Papali’i spilled the ball, in a movement symptomatic of the Blues frustrations, Moana replacement Fine Inisi scored in the corner to establish a 30-24 advantage with 12 minutes remaining.
With the Blues hammering away at the death, Moana, who have conceded an average of 44 points per game this season, desperately defended their line in the closing stages but they ultimately could not hold on.
The first half was punctuated by patchiness from the Blues.
For all their methodical, patient attack that eventually brought rewards in the form of three first-half tries, sloppy exits from halves Taufa Funaki and Harry Plummer, handling errors and ill-discipline killed off the quest to maintain a healthy lead.
Akira Ioane seized his first start since round one with a performance that carried notable work rate and intent. Ioane, following two games off the bench, was constantly hungry for ball-carrying work. He often shrugged off defenders, claiming one try from close range and setting up Caleb Clarke with one of two successful lineout set moves.
In his return from a seven-week injury absence Roger Tuivasa-Sheck injected his presence with two jinking runs but was quiet thereafter as Moana increasingly dented the Blues defensive line.
Darry, particularly at the lineout, was also prominent.
Staring down a 17-3 deficit, the contest threatened to turn ugly for Moana. Their ball retention was poor when in strike range but towards the backend of the half, they turned sustained pressure into points when dynamic wing Timoci Tavatavanawai burst over from a quick tap after a telling break from halfback Ereatara Enari.
Experienced Moana playmaker Christian Lealiifano pulled the strings nicely throughout, claiming a second-half try, and loosehead prop Abraham Pole profited from a maul just before the break to leave Moana well in the fight.
MacDonald’s frustration was clear as he immediately injected All Blacks halfback Finlay Christie and fullback Zarn Sullivan, the latter not in the original matchday squad, for the second half.
While the Blues eventually escaped, their trip to Christchurch next week, which could decide second place, looks decidedly more daunting after this underwhelming effort.
Blues 31 (Akira Ioane, Kurt Eklund, Caleb Clarke, Sam Darry tries, penalty try; Harry Plummer con, Zarn Sullivan con)
Moana 30 (Timoci Tavatavanawai, Abraham Pole, Christian Lealiifano, Fine Inisi tries; Lealiifano 2 cons, pen, D’Angelo Leuila pen)