The Blues have suffered an excruciating defeat to the defending champion Crusaders in a cliffhanger finish which has frustrated new coach Leon MacDonald but has left him optimistic that better things will happen this season.

With two minutes remaining, Blues replacement first-five Harry Plummer missed a penalty from 40m out which would have resulted in a remarkable comeback victory for the Blues, who were down 12-3 at halftime and seemingly out of the match.

Sometimes it's the hope that is the cruellest thing and this one will hurt the players and their long-suffering supporters. The Blues' winless streak against New Zealand teams now stretches to 20 matches – their last derby win was in round one of 2016 – and this could hardly have been closer.

The miss was tough on debutant Plummer and while he missed an earlier conversion too few will point the finger at him because the Blues had plenty of other chances to win.


"It's frustrating, obviously, not to get the result we were looking for," MacDonald said afterwards. "It was just a good game – it ebbed and flowed, the momentum, from both teams."

It was a strange old game and one which neither side appeared to know how to win. In the end it was probably muscle memory that got the Crusaders home because they were matched up front and occasionally dominated but had a little too much class in the backline.

"There was a lot more detail there – they were really clear with what they were doing," Crusaders coach Scott Robertson said of the Blues. "I was impressed with them. They had the right people in the right places and you could see their clear game structure; probably more than in other years."

The result was perhaps no surprise but the way they had to desperately cling on was and one major casualty was a broken arm for Crusaders and All Blacks prop Tim Perry which will sideline him for what could be a couple of months at least.

The Crusaders were awarded two penalty tries by referee Nick Briant – one for a collapsed maul for which impressive blindside flanker Tom Robinson was sinbinned, and one for a collapsed attacking scrum, but they earned the ire of the official too for constant second-half offending and replacement hooker Ben Funnell was yellow carded as a result.

Elsewhere there was little between the teams apart perhaps from Crusaders backs Braydon Ennor, George Bridge, David Havili and especially their wing Manasa Mataele, who scored two tries.

Down at halftime, the Blues roared back into it via the extremely good Akira Ioane, and a try to replacement prop Ofa Tuungafasi, which allowed the home side to take the lead.

But as they generally do, the Crusaders hit back straight away via Mataele before the Blues threatened a grandstand finish when halfback Augustine Pulu went over.


Loose forward Ioane, celebrating his 50th game for the Blues, was a standout and appeared to want to get his side home by himself such was his impact. And when Tuungafasi and fellow All Black Karl Tu'inukuafe joined the fray on 50 minutes as the Blues laid siege to the Crusaders' line, the momentum shifted considerably and the returning Ma'a Nonu, who played a full 80 minutes, had a big part to play in it.

For MacDonald, there is frustration but also signs that this team is on the right track against a side who have lost just three games under Robertson. This was the Crusaders' 16th consecutive victory; a record-equalling performance.

"That's a good pack – that Crusaders pack has led them to two titles in two years and they showed that tonight," MacDonald said. "They were put under pressure at scrum time and then they responded – that's why they're the defending champions."

Crusaders 24 (Manasa Mataele 2 tries; 2 penalty tries)
Blues 22 (Akira Ioane, Ofa Tuungafasi, Augustine Pulu tries; Otere Black pen, con, Harry Plummer con)
Halftime: 12-3