It was the worst of times, and eventually, finally, the best of times for the Blues at North Harbor Stadium on Friday night as they doubled their win count for the Super Rugby Pacific season.
The day, and the match, certainly did not start promisingly for Leon MacDonald’s men as they had to battle a Covid disruption, three late withdrawals and then a first-half shocker, but they made the correction in time to steam home to a comfortable 32 -20 victory over the Highlanders that retains the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy.
It also improves the Blues to 2-1 for the season, and nine competition points. The southerners, sadly, remain victorious with four consecutive defeats to open the new competition.
The home side got their act together at halftime. It was as simple as that. They could not take a trick in the first 40, but sizzled home on the back of a two-try effort from 22-year-old loose forward Taine Plumtree, a big shift from the pack and some skilful play by their talented backs.
* Covid outbreak hits Blues ahead of Super Rugby Pacific match against Highlanders
* Blues’ Stephen Perofeta rides confidence into Super Rugby Pacific visit by Highlanders
* Blues get out of jail as Chiefs rue late penalty miss in Super Rugby Pacific
The Highlanders battled away through their limitations, and gave themselves a sniff late when Shannon Frizell crossed for a try to get them within five (at 25-20), but their lineout struggles cost them dearly as they failed to apply much in the way of pressure over the run home.
The Blues were clearly unsettled by the match-day disruption which saw them confirm a minor Covid outbreak, and later with Beauden Barrett, Nepo Laulala and backup halfback Sam Nock all withdrawn from the 23. Zarn Sullivan came in to start at fullback, Stphen Perofeta moved to No 10 and Marcel Renata came in off the bench to start at tighthead prop.
But even that cannot have explained the dire nature of their first 40 minutes, which saw them cough up the only score of the half – a penalty try from a ‘Landers lineout drive brought down by Luke Romano – and go into the sheds 13-3 down.
The Blues committed eight handling errors on a perfect night for rugby, and were so off the mark it was hard to recall anything positive they managed through the opening stanza. They were devoid of rhythm and their effort was perhaps best summed up by the ninth-minute brain explosion from wing Caleb Clarke who was put clear down the left touchline and lost the ball with the line open when he carried in one paw and allowed the scrambling Aaron Smith to knock it loose.
The Highlanders kept things pretty simple, with a lot of kick-chase, and plenty of pressure at the breakdown. And they very much unsettled their northern mates.
The Blues, of course, couldn’t stay that bad. And they didn’t.
Young loose forward Plumtree struck with two excellent tries in the first 10 minutes of the second spell and from there the home side were away. Rieko Ioane added a quality finish off Bryce Heem’s break and Perofeta sealed the deal late with a nice finish after impact men James Tucker and Adrian Choat had opened the visitors up.
It was heartening to see talents like Perofeta, Heem, Ioane and Mark Telea getting things rolling in the second spell, though the Blues will also want to have a good hard look at those first-half woes.
The big moment
Plumtree’s first try early in the second spell. The big loose forward was all over an important seven-pointer he started by tapping back a high kick and finished by running a nice support line for his skipper Dalton Papalii. The Blues needed an early score to turn this match’s momentum, and their young loosie delivered brilliantly.
6/10. As a contest this never really reached any heights. The Highlanders were game, but distinctly limited throughout. The Blues were awful in the first 40, and infinitely better in the second as they ate up that 10-point deficit and left the visitors in their dust. A tough watch at times for the neutrals.
The big picture
The Blues continue their climb up the standings, and will at least take something from their second-half turnaround and much improved finish. And they at least finished things off better this week. For the Highlanders it’s hard to see a way back from here as they have dug themselves a massive hole to climb out of.
Plumtree. By a country mile. The big blindside flanker, and son of All Blacks assistant coach John, in just his second match for the Blues completely changed the game with his two tries in the first 10 minutes of the second spell that took the Blues from 10 down to 4 up. A match haul of 45 meters on 7 carries, with the two scores and one clean break reflected an excellent night’s work.
Blues 32 (Taine Plumtree 2 tries 42min, 49min, Rieko Ioane try 64min, Stephen Perofeta try 79min; Perofeta pen, 3 con, Zarn Sullivan pen).
Highlanders 20 (penalty try 29 min, Shannon Frizell try 74 min; Mitch Hunt 2 pen, con). excl. tax: 3-13.
Yellow card: Luke Romano 29 min