The Blues kept their hopes of winning Super Rugby Aotearoa alive following today’s Round 8 win over the Highlanders in Dunedin.

The Aukland-based franchise had to do some late shuffling to their lineup with starting flanker Blake Gibson and replacement lock Josh Goodhue, but it didn’t seem to matter as the pack drove a 5m lineout over the Highlanders try line after just 3 minutes, only for Aaron Smith to have his foot in the perfect position to hold the ball up. That only delayed the inevitable though, as from the resultant scrums, Akira Ioane crashed over Scott Gregory to open the scoring. A few minutes later, a Highlanders handling error turned the ball over on halfway and after Beauden Barrett cross-kick to Caleb Clarke cutout the Highlanders defence, he had the support inside for Finlay Christie to cross fr another try. The Highlanders forced their way back into the game, and after Josh Ioane got them on the board with a penalty, Ash Dixon got their first try of the match from a 5m catch and drive. Dalton Papali’i had a try controversially ruled out for an offside penalty that allowed Ioane to kick the Highlanders into their first lead of the game, but the lead lasted just seconds as another turnover quickly saw TJ Faiane cross to put the Blues back ahead. With Barrett having an indifferent day off the tee, Ioane kicked another penalty to keep things close, but Ofa Tu’ungafasi crossed right before halftime and Barrett converted to give the Blues a 16-24 lead.

The Blues quickly extended the lead after the break with Christie crossing for his second try and Barrett added a penalty just before the hour to put the game all-but out of sight. The Highlanders continued to fight and after the Blues lost replacement prop Sione Mafileo to the bin with 7 minutes left, Shannon Frizell managed to cross to give the final score a more respectable look. The Highlanders looked to pull within 7, but the Blues managed to hang on to get the 21-32 bonus point win, their first win over the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

The spirit of the game

Another day of rugby, another controversial decision relating to a try referred to the TMO. This time it was a disallowed try as Dalton Papali’i interceted a pas on halfway to score under the posts, only for referee Mike Fraser to be badgered into checking with the TMO and then instead awarding a penalty to the Highlanders for offside against prop Karl Tu’inukuafe. So what actually happened.

Tu’inukuafe was involved in the tackle attempt that led to the final ruck before the try, but fell off the tackle. He went to get back to his feet, but realised that he was in the passing lane, with Aaron Smith ready to go at the back of the ruck, so he dropped back to the floor so as to not interfere with play. Rather than throw the pass, Smith chooses to run laterally and appears to trip over Tu’inukuafe as he passes, the Highlanders try to spread the ball without looking, but Papali’i has had time to come forwards and legally get in the passing lane, making the intercept and taking it to the house.

I can understand why Tu’inukuafe was penalised, but personally I think it was he wrong call, as unlike a lazy runner, he has made every attempt to keep himself out of the play and it is only through Aaron Smith’s decision to run directly over where he was led that brought him into the play. There was nothing else the prop could do, whereas Smith chose to run there in the full knowledge that he was on the floor, so I would argue that at best it was a stupid decision from a very good halfback rather than an illegal act by Tu’inukuafe.

When you watch the replays of the trip, though, it becomes a different story. Smith was on his way to the floor before he even reached Tu’inukuafe having done his best impression of Tom Daley and diving to the ground, throwing out a pass on his way down. All it needed were a few rolls on the ground and I’d have thought the Highlanders had Neymar playing at scrum half! There is milking a penalty, overreacting to an illegal offence to highlight it to the officials, but then there is simulation to buy a penalty, and that is what Smith did here.

This is completely against the spirit of the game, exactly like a scrum half deliberately throwing the ball into a retreating player at a ruck when there were clearly no teammates in the vicinity to receive that pass. There is no place for it in the sport and I would love to see officials do what Mike Fraser initially did here: wave play on and watch the other team pounce on the loose ball so the cocky halfback gets crucified by his teammates.

What made the situation even worse in this case is that the conversion was almost certain to be scored, but instead Ioane managed to kick a penalty. This decision caused a 10-point swing in the moment and put the Highlanders ahead, luckily the Blues got on with the game and put themselves back ahead almost immediately.

Playmaker

This game really highlighted the benefits of Beauden Barrett at fly half. I will continue to argue that Mo’unga is the better 10 as he is more reliable, but when Barrett is playing well, it is a sight to behold.

While Otere Black has done a great job managing the team around the pitch, Barrett brought more variety to the attack. As well as running it himself when it was on, he was utilising a range of passes and kicks to keep the defence guessing. This meant that it became difficult for the Highlanders to effectively organise their defence, especially given the quality of the options available to Barrett.

His abilities were especially highlighted at a couple of turnovers. Christie’s opener came one phase after a turnover, where Barrett caught the defence out with a cross-kick shallow enough to take the opposition winger out of contention and allowing the support me to create a simple numerical overlap against the winger and fullback, the only people with any chance of stopping the attack. Similarly for Christie’s second, Barrett took advantage of a turnover by throwing a wide pass to Tony Lamborn that cut out the entire defence – who had been caught too narrow in transition – and while Lamborn did not have the pace to make it to the line himself, it was still easier for the support in comparison to the covering Josh Ioane and the turning defenders.

The Blues now have a bye before their potential decider against the Crusaders (this would require the Crusaders to lose/draw without a bonus point at home to the Highlanders next week), so they have a choice to make: do they stick with Barrett at 10, or go back to Otere Black? I pick option 3: Carter at 10, Barrett at 15.

Stacked at the back

One thing that Super Rugby Aotearoa has highlighted is the depth that the Blues have in the back row. This match was no exception.

Back in Round 1, the starting trio was Blake Gibson, Tom Robinson and Hoskins Sotutu, with Papali’i coming on after half hour to take the place of the injured Gibson. Robinson is a fantastic player, but injury sadly robbed him of any further gametime in the tournament, while Gibson fund himself lower down the pecking order with Papali’i and Akira Ioane creating a dangerous trio with Sotutu. Sotutu’s injury has been largely dealt with by moving Ioane back to his preferred position of number 8 and he has got better by the week, while Gibson, Tony Lamborn and Aaron Carroll have all done a great job partnering Papali’i as flankers an minimising the impact on the team.

This week, with Gibson and Goodhue pulling out last, Lamborn was promoted to the XV with Carroll and lock Jacob Pierce coming onto the bench. Carroll was on early in the second half as Papali’i took a knock, but then Lamborn needed replacing for a HIA. This led to Pierce having to come on, and with 3 locks on the pitch (4 if you count Carroll too), Gerard Cowley-Tuioti found himself packing down at number 8 for a 5m scrum and doing a great job of keeping the ball in the scrum while a pack that was already big and was now even bigger following the substitutions steamrolled the Highlanders scrum for a penalty.

If you want to challenge for the title, you need to have strength in depth to cover for injuries and allow players to get sufficient rest, especially with the intensity these games are being played at. With available to the Blues in such a key unit, they are in a very good position to challenge both now and in the foreseeable future.

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