Equal parts pride and relief were palpable from Blues coach Leon MacDonald after his side shook off the burden of history to claim the Super Rugby Transtasman title on Saturday night.
You couldn't call the Blues 23-15 victory over the tenacious Highlanders at Eden Park pretty or anywhere close to perfect but, in a final, the result is ultimately all that matters.
The Blues needed a pair of unlikely heroes – replacement playmaker Harry Plummer, who slotted a clutch long-range penalty and sideline conversion, and a 77th minute try from Blake Gibson – to sneak past the Highlanders and claim their first title in 18 years.
"Not easy on the heart," MacDonald said after describing his rollercoaster of emotions when the Highlanders stole the lead to stir up ghosts of the past with 10 minutes remaining. "It was a real final. It was combative and physical with drama.
"We're thrilled to get there in the end, but it didn't look that way - with 10 minutes to go it was quite hairy for us so to be able to pull it back and get the win, we're stoked."
MacDonald singled out Plummer for praise after he exorcised demons to come good for the Blues when they needed him most.
"I wouldn't have liked going to that last maul knowing they could score and win the game," MacDonald said of Plummer's sideline conversion that established an eight-point buffer.
"They were two big plays. Harry has been kicking the ball really well at training and he's a confident player. He's been through a lot. He copped some criticism when he missed a kick against the Crusaders two years ago. A lot of people who have criticised him, he's answered that in spades."
The weight of history was evident for the Blues as they bashed away at the Highlanders line for long periods, only to blow chance after chance with a lack of patience on attack. Each time the Blues botched tries, tension escalated from their helpless coaching box.
"We got a bit frantic at times and tried to make the miracle play," MacDonald said. "You get a little bit anxious when you start thinking about the result and it probably happened with the last 10 minutes. We got a penalty, kicked it down and our first strike we dropped the ball. We just needed to be really ruthless there and that got them back in the game.
"There were a few moments we weren't at our best but we did play good rugby and apply pressure. The points weren't coming but if we stayed true, we knew they would. This was probably to the utmost degree when we scored a try near the end of the game.
"It was scary watching from the coaching box."
Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu had a unique finish to the match after being surprisingly substituted in the 57th minute, only to return not long after when Josh Goodhue suffered a head knock.
Tuipulotu felt finally breaking through to claim an elusive title proved the Blues' progression.
"A lot has been said about the last time the Blues were in the finals but for us we brushed it aside because we weren't there and we were quite young," Tuipulotu said of 2003. "For us it's about building something new. It's been bubbling over a couple of years.
"We talk about Harry, he's been pretty crucial. He missed a couple of crucial kicks in years gone by and to have him nail those now it's testament to the growth of this group and what the coaching staff have done.
"To win it, it's pretty surreal. I haven't won much so to win this - it's unreal. I'll enjoy it for sure."
MacDonald paid tribute to his departing players – lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, second-five TJ Faiane and first-five Otere Black – and suggested the Blues are far from the finished product yet.
"It's a great story for a lot of these guys who have been with this club for a long time and done some hard years. They've made their decisions to move offshore so to leave their time with a win is fantastic.
"This group has got some massive potential. The second half of the season we're starting to see big growth from individuals and the collective. We're a young group as well which is really exciting. Paddy is one of the older statesmen and his best years are still ahead of him.
"You saw [last night] and in the Aotearoa competition just how close the margins are. You get it wrongly slightly and you're off.
"We'll gain belief which is huge. We understand how tough it is and what it takes to win a title now. When you speak to the guys in the sheds, they're hungry for more. They love this feeling. It might just light that fire for us to keep moving forward."
Highlanders captain Ash Dixon, who in his 100th match was fortunate not to cop a red card for his late and high hit on Black in the first half, spoke with pride of the effort of his men, noting the disparity in talent. Many would agree the Highlanders deserve much more than their consistent underdog tag.
"Our resources and budget are a lot different to other teams," Dixon said. "We had 13 guys out; one All Black and one Japanese player against 10 All Blacks. To become an All Black it isn't easy – you're the pinnacle of New Zealand rugby. That's a quality side. Our team had no All Blacks in our pack and we had to square up against these boys who are running heavy ball.
"If we can keep working our game, sort out some injuries, we're right in the money. Our culture is great; our team is great. We're just going to get better and better.
"We don't get the cream of the crop but some of them have a chip on their shoulder and want to prove something to other players. That's how we get on with it."