Semifinals secured, but the uphill hike starts now for the Blues.
A predictable mauling of the underwhelming Waratahs propels the Blues into the final four and a likely trek to Christchurch to confront the six-time defending champion Crusaders next week.
The Blues didn’t need to get out of third gear to dispatch the Waratahs and maintain Australia’s collective 27-year failure to win one Super Rugby finals match in New Zealand.
This was the Blues’ ninth straight win against the Waratahs – the last in April at Eden Park coming by a record 55-21 margin, such is the glaring disparity.
After finishing the regular season third, the Blues now contemplate the daunting task of attempting to claim the title away from Eden Park’s comforts.
With their place in the semifinals secure the Blues wait to see if the Crusaders kill off the Fijian Drua’s maiden finals appearance at the first hurdle on Saturday night to set up a rematch of last year’s final.
While the Blues claimed five-tries-to-two – scoring 38 unanswered points after the Waratahs struck first – their resilient defence and dominant scrum sets the platform for their tilt at the title.
The Blues possess lethal attacking weapons throughout their backline – none more dangerous than Mark Telea who scored his 10th try in nine games - yet it’s on the other side of the ball where their playoffs blueprint lies.
Despite dominating the Waratahs the Blues were on the wrong side of a lopsided territorial battle and, therefore, had to defend their line for long periods. Their 92 per cent tackle success – missing 11 of 145 attempts - paints the picture of their defensive resolve.
And with Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi continuing their powerful propping efforts, the Blues scrum is a formidable force.
The Blues led 17-7 after a largely scrappy first half. Leon MacDonald’s men looked good in the second half when they put the ball through the hands to create space on the edge where loose forwards and wingers roamed freely.
Their maul found success, too, by laying on one try for hooker Ricky Riccitelli.
With a comfortable margin in hand MacDonald had the luxury of replacing Beauden Barrett with 15 minutes to play.
On face value the Blues will push into the semifinals with confidence. The nature of their patchy season, and the second-rate nature of the Waratahs, urges caution, though.
The Blues boast all the ingredients to challenge for another title but their record in Christchurch, where they have one win since 2004, speaks to the significant hurdle they are likely to face away from home.
While the Waratahs opened the scoring through lock Ned Hanigan, this was a limp way for Michael Hooper to bow out in his final Super Rugby match.
The Waratahs pressured the Blues for extended periods of the first half but ultimately couldn’t convert. All Blacks halfback Finlay Christie saved a try by knocking the ball from Waratahs wing Dylan Pietsch’s grasp and, on another occasion, an obstruction penalty five metres from the Blues line proved costly for the visitors.
The Blues savoured the upper hand at the set piece, with their defensive lineout stealing three throws and their dominant scrum winning penalties, but their handling left a lot to be desired at times too.
Christie finished the best movement of the match after AJ Lam sparked a try that featured seven passes down the short side from inside the Blues 22.
The Blues hardly deserved to lead at the break. Yet after bashing away towards the end of the half, Nepo Laulala barged over from close range to establish some breathing room.
From there, they turned the screws and displayed a ruthless streak to not allow the Waratahs back into the contest.
That’s the attitude the Blues must seize if they are to avenge last year’s final loss.
Blues 41 (Nepo Laulala, Finlay Christie, Ricky Riccitelli, Zarn Sullivan, Mark Telea tries; Beauden Barrett 4 cons, pen, Harry Plummer con, pen)
Waratahs 12 (Ned Hanigan, Dylan Pietsch tries; Tane Edmed con)