It’s time to pull out all the stops. The Super Rugby Pacific final we all really wanted. Irresistible force against a stationary object. Perennial suitors versus metronomic suitors. Or, if you prefer, the Blues against the Crusaders, for all the marbles.
The dream grand final (with apologies to Chiefs fans), at Eden Park next Saturday night, has been set up, first with a magnificent defensive performance by the Crusaders on Friday night in Christchurch to strangle the Chiefs 20-7, then with the Blues’ thrilling 20-19 win on Saturday night over an ultra-competitive Brumbies side in his home fortress.
Leon MacDonald’s side did it the hard way in front of a crowd of 26,900, like the Crusaders the night before, who scored zero in the second spell as they clung by the skin of their teeth. Two second-half yellow cards put the Brumbies back on track as they came within a point in the closing minutes, and it was Blues substitute Ofa Tuungafasi who became an unlikely hero as he rose to charge a game-winning drop goal attempt from Brumbies flyhalf Noah Lolesio.
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It was the Blues’ 15th straight win in 2022 as they rode an unprecedented wave of momentum to their fifth (real) grand final. This will be the third game between them and the Crusaders in the showpiece clash, with the ledger sitting at one apiece. The Rouge et Noir won at Eden Park in 1998; the Auks got their revenge with a triumph in the 2003 final on the same ground.
The Blues were led magnificently by their two best backs, Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane unleashing consummate performances. Wingers Mark Telea and AJ Lam also made big changes, and Fin Christie was excellent on a busy night. Nepo Laulala scrambled superbly for the home side and Tom Robinson landed two massive steals in the line-up to score a fine night’s work.
But the Brumbies just didn’t give up and nearly stole the game with outstanding play from Tom Wright, Tom Banks and Irae Simone behind the backs, and a pack that simply won’t be denied on the record.
The Brumbies got off to a perfect start when inside center Simone flayed a shaky defensive effort from a scrum from around 40 yards out to give the visitors a dream 7-0 start.
But the Blues settled into slippery conditions, started to get the upper hand from scrimmage and dominated the second quarter to string together two superb tries for a deserved 20-7 halftime lead. Ioane and Barrett, who combined for 123 yards rushed in the first half, featured prominently in the buzzing finish.
Ioane created the openings for both tries with fake runs, Hoskins Sotutu scored the first, in the 23rd minute when Stephen Perofeta made ground from deep, Robinson and Rieko Ioane stepped in, and a couple of clean phases more late, No. 8 was spinning. out of a tackle.
The Brumbies flyer opens the scoring
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In-form winger Telea added the second, half a dozen minutes from the break, after Rieko Ioane was again released on the left, Lam and Christie ran the back lines, and Barrett and Perofeta does the rest to leave Telea just enough room to squirm.
But the second half was for the Brumbies, as Kurt Eklund and Adrian Choat were both sent to the trash, and replacement hooker Lachlan Lonergan kicked in two tries to send the contest to the wire.
The big moment
Tom Robinson’s 73rd-minute steal, the Brumbies preparing for another drive down the line. At 20-12, everything was sealed for the home team.
Match rating: 8/10
Wet conditions and stakes meant it would always be less smooth. But some of the skills on both sides were excellent, the physical commitment was on point and the Brumbies stayed in the competition until the end.
The big picture
The Blues now have a chance of winning their first full Super Rugby title since 2003. To lift the silverware, however, they’re going to have to get past the mighty red and black machine. It’s the signature finale this inaugural season of Pacific football deserves.
Beauden Barrett continued his princely 2022 form with a command display. His touches, his running lines, his kicking game, his positional stuff… it was all top class as the Blues’ No.10 confirmed he was playing as well as he ever had in a remarkable career.
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