At last Blues the real deal

Hard-hitting Blues skipper Dalton Papalii capped his best performance with a fine try. Photo Blues Rugby
  • By Ivan Agnew, award-wining sports writer

Having taken 18 long years to beat the Super Rugby champion Crusaders at Christchurch, the wait was almost worth it with the Blues’ 24-21 thriller on Good Friday.

In a high-speed action-packed contest worthy of a final, the Blues finally demonstrated their vast improvement after Leon MacDonald’s four-year reign as head coach.

As a former Crusader himself, MacDonald is well-versed in team building although he would also be the first to acknowledge the tremendous contribution made by forward coach Tom Coventry and this year’s input from Joe Schmidt who transformed Ireland into a world force.

With hard-hitting skipper Dalton Papalii capping his best performance with a fine try and burly tighthead Ofa Tu’ungafasi and No 8 Hoskins Sotutu leading the forwards charge, Beauden Barrett capitalised on halfback Finlay Christie’s swift service with his best game in years.

Switching from first-five to fullback with talented Stephen Perofeta, the speedy Barrett made some glorious breaks, set up tries and kicked long and deep when required.

However, in the second half Richie Mo’unga replied in kind with some nifty footwork to remind fans how lucky New Zealand is to have such incredibly gifted No 10s.

Others to confirm their attacking class were electrifying fullback Will Jordan and dazzling right wings Sevu Reece (Crusaders) and Mark Telea (Blues).

With Rieko Ioane and Braydon Ennor negating the other’s attack with strong defence, the answer to injured centre Anton Lienert Brown’s test replacement against Ireland wasn’t answered in this game.

However, the Blues can thank the try-saving double-tackle executed by the flying Ioane and Papalii on substitute Dominic Gardiner for stopping the gallant Crusaders from snatching victory with a magnificent comeback.

At 20, robust flanker Gardiner is a former St Bedes First XV captain and head boy with pace, heart and a huge future.

Other than a jubilant MacDonald, nobody appeared to relish the Blues victory more than 35-year-old veteran lock Luke Romano who has added starch to what has become a formidable pack.

Although beaten, the Crusaders will also take heart from the result in the knowledge they had captain Scott Barrett red-carded for a shoulder charge which left them a man short for 20 minutes before he was replaced.

In fact, they were reduced to 13 men when David Havili was sin-binned for 10.

On his current form, Papalii is the best No 7 in the country although the All Blacks selectors will probably be reluctant to replace gritty captain Sam Cane in the June series against Ireland.

Competition for the midfield berths between Havili, Ioane and Ennor will also be strong with league convert Roger Tuivasa-Sheck likely to make a late bid after a shoulder injury.

Meanwhile, versatile veteran Bryce Heem has been an unsung hero, slotting in at the Blues’ second-five berth where he contributes to the improved cohesive flow with accurate well-timed passes.

In a country blessed with halfbacks of the calibre of Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber, the highly competitive Finlay Christie bows to no one.

With Beauden Barrett seemingly back to his magical best, his partnership with Christie is vital to the Blues’ title hopes.