Any hint the Blues had their head in the clouds can be swiftly dismissed after they were brought back down to earth with a second round loss to the Brumbies.
Eight days on from scoring eight tries to emphatically defeat the Highlanders 60-20 in Dunedin, the Blues were frustrated into an early season setback that will serve as something of a reality check.
A week is a long time in rugby parlance.
The Brumbies, with two wins from two attempts to open their season, again appear the strongest Australian challenger. With their physicality and intent to play to their strengths, the Brumbies certainly posed a serious step up from the Highlanders last week.
In a weekend where blowouts were prevalent this contest, a repeat of last year’s tense semifinal where the Blues escaped by one point at Eden Park, was the game of the Super Round in Melbourne.
While the Brumbies extracted revenge on this occasion it would not be a surprise to see these contenders collide again come finals time.
This was a match of stark contrasts, too, with the first half featuring 45 points and five tries – only for the second half to go scoreless.
Discipline was a major frustration for the Blues. Falling on the wrong side of a 17-9 penalty count will be a focus for Leon MacDonald’s men as those issues stunted their ability to impose their desired game on the Brumbies, who were content to engage in a set piece battle and pressure the breakdown where they enjoyed the upper hand.
Trailing 25-20 at halftime, the Blues had their chances to steal victory down the stretch but with 90 seconds remaining and a lineout on halfway, they conceded another breakdown penalty to underline the Brumbies influence in suffocating this area.
The Blues had one final crack at the finish only for replacement midfielder Bryce Heem to be held up and turned over inside the Brumbies 22.
In his bid to crack the All Blacks World Cup squad Roger Tuivasa-Sheck delivered an impressive performance with several direct, powerful carries and spot tackles.
After a slick scrum switch move, Tuivasa-Sheck should have collected a try just after halftime but midfield partner Rieko Ioane failed to give the last pass with the line begging and Caleb Clarke also in support.
In a tight contest that mistake ultimately proved costly – as the final five-point margin suggests.
That movement was symptomatic of the scoreless second half where both teams traded blows but neither could find the necessary finishing as handling errors became frequent in the scorching 30-degree afternoon sun.
Tuivasa-Sheck departed near the finish after suffering from cramp but this was his best performance for the Blues.
As fatigue set in, the Blues enjoyed impact off the bench with halfback Taufa Funaki adding spark and All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala vastly improving their shaky scrum, but it wasn’t enough to roll over the top of the Brumbies.
The Blues were on the back foot early when reduced to 13 men following successive yellow cards to Clarke and prop James Lay. In the space of two minutes, Clarke was dispatched for an intentional knockdown while Lay went to the bin after collapsing a maul that also earned the Brumbies the opening strike through a penalty try.
Despite their numerical disadvantage the Blues managed that challenging period well by largely attempting to control possession and build phases. That approach led to Ricky Riccitelli responding, but it wasn’t long before the Brumbies managed to exploit an overlap with Andy Muirhead running in untouched on the edge.
The Brumbies found success pressuring the Blues set piece particularly the scrum where both loosehead props Ofa Tuungafasi and Joshua Fusitu’a, on debut, were repeatedly penalised. The Brumbies rolling maul proved typically effective, too, with Lachlan Lonergan crashing over for a second try from that platform.
Restored to their full contingent, the Blues worked their way back into the contest by chasing turnover possession. Dalton Papali’i led from the front to earn one penalty and after Finlay Christie snaffled a breakdown steal, Tom Robinson claimed the try of the half with a right foot step to break the line and surprising pace to leave Brumbies fullback Tom Wright for dead.
Highlights were limited in the second half but Super Rugby needs more of these contests where jeopardy hangs in the air, rather than a procession of one-sided points.
For the Blues, it will be a case of returning home and resetting their sights before travelling to Wellington to meet the Hurricanes next week after this humbling result.
Blues 20 (Ricky Riccitelli, Tom Robinson tries; Beauden Barrett 2 cons, 2 pens)
Brumbies 25 (Penalty try, Andy Muirhead, Lachlan Lonergan tries; Ryan Lonergan con, 2 pens)