Seven talking points from the weekend of Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Yes, they are the real deal
On May 30, two weeks before the competition started, somebody (okay, it was me) wrote: "What would once have seemed as unlikely as Winston Peters ignoring a mirror will happen in Super Rugby Aotearoa: The Blues will become a major force again."
Given the quality of men like Patrick Tuipulotu and Leon MacDonald it's a pleasure to be able to say, nine weeks later, that this time enthusiasm for the Blues, reflected in huge crowds at Eden Park, is not misplaced.
The 32-21 bonus- point win over the Highlanders in Dunedin was well earned, whether with the blazing running of people like Caleb Clarke and Rieko Ioane, the quick thinking of Beauden Barrett, or the huge commitment in a steely forward pack of Ofa Tuungafasi, Dalton Papalii and their comrades.
These guys deserve a sold-out Eden Park when they play the Crusaders in a fortnight, and even if by then the title is statistically beyond the Blues, Tuipulotu and his men have done New Zealand rugby a huge service by reviving a great rivalry that looked not so much dormant, as actually dead.
Did Mike Fraser think it was a Chiefs game?
The craziest rulings in Super Rugby Aotearoa have always involved the Chiefs. But the denial of what looked like a completely fair runaway try in the 28th minute by Papalii in Dunedin deserved a place in the 2020 grand final of the Whacky Judicial Cup.
It was called back because Aaron Smith somehow didn't notice that Karl Tu'inukuafe, at 135kg admittedly easy to miss, was trying to burrow his way into the surface of Forsyth Barr Stadium to get out of Smith's way. So Smith tripped over him as he passed the ball, which didn't go straight to Papalii's hand anyway, and the try was disallowed.
Thankfully we all know that all halfbacks, from Justin Marshall to Jimmy Cowan to TJ Perenara to Smith, all adhere to a code where fooling a referee is forbidden. Otherwise you might think that referee Mike Fraser had been conned by one of the oldest tricks in the game.
The boys are back in town, and they're on fire
Last year Rieko and Akira Ioane were looking like young men struggling to find their way.
No longer. Rieko is as sharp as a skinning knife again, and so is Akira, who told Liam Napier last week that he no longer reads "the doubters and the haters" online, and just concentrates on his fitness. With a clearer mind, and a more athletic body Akira's become the highly influential figure the Blues always hoped he would be.
Forget the Hand of God
Diego Maradona explained the goal he scored at the 1986 Football World Cup as the Hand of God. If the Highlanders had managed to squeak a win then it'd be fair for people in Otago to start talking about the Foot of Aaron.
Aaron Smith is a remarkable footballer, but even by his standards the way he saved a third-minute try by getting his foot under an attempt to force the ball by Blues' hooker Kurt Eklund was a stellar effort. At 31, Smith's career has to be nearing its last stages, but he's certainly not going out with a whimper.
As blues singer Albert King wrote, "If it wasn't for bad luck I wouldn't have no luck at all"
The weirdness of the awarding of a try to Sevu Reece in the 60th minute of the Crusaders' 32-19 win in Hamilton hit new heights in what's now the almost farcical saga of the Chiefs and referees.
Should the try have been awarded? No. There were two ways it could have been rejected. Given that Quinten Strange, who carried before Reece snapped up the ball and crossed the line, didn't really have control of the ball, a knock-on might have been called. A second problem was the fact the ball travelled about five metres ahead of the spot where Strange had attempted to slap it back towards his own goalline. But no forward pass was called.
The reaction of the Crusaders was fascinating. Reece didn't smile after he placed the ball, he grimaced. And the Crusaders didn't rush back to halfway. They looked instead as if they were getting ready for a scrum.
It hasn't quite reached the stage of national referees' head Bryce Lawrence having a form letter of apology drafted to send to the Chiefs every weekend but it's not far off it.
Nevertheless, while the try to Reece, which took the Crusaders from 20-19 ahead to 27-19, was a body blow to the Chiefs, keep in mind there were three Crusader tries before it, and one after it, and all of them were excellently crafted. The Chiefs scored one try in the whole game.
Life's painful lessons
The Crusaders consistently show more street smarts than a Martin Scorsese movie. By comparison the Chiefs in Hamilton were, as always, gutsy, but on occasions they were tactically naïve.
Against a back three of George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Will Jordan, if you're going to kick, you'd better be laser-sight accurate. But too often Damian McKenzie and Aaron Cruden lobbed kicks that at best could be called hopeful.
Right through this truncated season the Chiefs have vacillated during games over whether they're a rip, snort, and bust, damn the torpedoes, attack at all costs team, or a more conservative, play for position outfit. The decisions on which way to lean have to be made in a split second on the field, so they can't really be instilled by coaches. It's the Crusaders' great fortune that they have, in Richie Mo'unga, a man born to the role of master tactician.
No wonder the Crusaders were so fired up to win. To them one loss is a losing streak
Miracles may still happen, but only someone who knows they have next week's jackpot winning Lotto ticket in their pocket would risk even $10 betting against the Crusaders now taking out the title.
They've lost their captain, Scott Barrett, a vice-captain, David Havili, and rising stars in Braydon Ennor and Cullen Grace, but they can still click into Rolls Royce mode, and when they do, no team in the world that's not a test side can touch them.