After losing their last 2 games, the Blues returned to Eden Park to take on the Chiefs. With the Crusaders losing to the Hurricanes the day before, the Blues knew that a win would put them back in the hunt, and they got off to a great start just 6 minutes in when a slight of hand from Reiko Ioane and a brilliant line from Matt Duffie saw the fullback score from the first phase of a scrum with just 5 minutes gone. The Blues soon doubled their lead as captain Patrick Tuipulotu made it over the line, but the Chiefs soon pulled one back through flanker Lachlan Boshier, with Damian Mckenzie kicking the conversion to make it 14-7, a score which remained throughout the second quarter.
The Chiefs came out of the blocks quicker following the break and soon had their reward as a great move off a scrum down the blind side released Solomon Alaimalo to score – though he injured himself in the process. McKenzie kicked the conversion and added a penalty a few minutes later to put the team ahead for the first time in the match. The lead didn’t last long however, as Finlay Christie forced himself over for the go-ahead score on 55 minutes, with Beauden Barrett – starting at 10 for the first time in his Blues career following Otere Black’s late recovery from a neck injury – kicking his 3ʳᵈ conversion to make the score 21-7. Both teams continued to battle, but things didn’t look good for the Blues as they conceded a penalty 5 metres out in the middle of the pitch with 2 minutes left and lost Harry Plummer to the bin. However with the game on the line, Josh Goodhue managed to get over the ball on the line and won a crucial penalty, allowing the Blues to clear their lines and see out the final seconds in safety, before kicking the ball into touch to put them back to 2ⁿᵈ in the table.
Toeing the line
The Blues defence in this game was out to have an impact. The team were putting the pressure on the Chiefs right from the first minute, with Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Kurt Eklund, Tuipulotu, Blake Gibson and Akira Ioane all leading the way with double-digit tackles. It took a moment of great footwork from McKenzie to break through the defensive line and put the Blues on the back foot for Boshier’s try, while Alaimalo’s try came from a great move to effectively work the numbers down the blind side. With such dedicated defence like this, they won’t be easy to score against.
Except for one big problem. To have such an impact, they were playing so close to the line between what was legal and what was illegal. As a result, they finished the game with 14 penalties conceded, many for offside or defensive infringements at the breakdown as dominant tackles saw them end up on the wrong side of the ruck or the next player in went a little too far in trying to win the ball back. It was this accumulation of penalties that led to Harry Plummer’s yellow card for the team’s repeat infringements, and being a back down with a penalty where it was should have cost them the game (more on that later).
If the Blues can defend like this in the remaining games, they have a good chance of challenging for the title, but they need to be careful to stay on the right side of the officials or a better team will take advantage of the penalties.
The Blues’ scrum has been one of the most successful in the tournament, and it certainly looked it in this match. With some big bodies behind them, the Blues front row has done a great job of at least holding parity with their opponents, and often overpowering them. Ofa Tu’ungafasi looks in great form not just at the scrum but also around the park and had a great day against Reuben O’Neill. On the other side of the front row, Alex Hodgman appeared to struggle for almost the first time this tournament against All Black Nepo Laulala, but the coaches moved quickly, replacing him at the early signs that he was losing his duel and bringing on All Black Karl Tu’inukuafe, who immediately solidified that side of the scrum and got the Blues pack back on the front foot. Andit was clear that the Chiefs knew the Blues had the dominance there too.
With a 78ᵗʰ minute penalty being earned 5 minutes from the Blues try line in a central position, and with the Blues down a back following Plummer’s yellow card. The clear tactical decision is to go for a scrum, as it ties in the forwards and allows the backs to exploit the extra number. However such had been the performance of the Blues scrum, the Chiefs did not feel confident enough to call for the scrum, instead going for the tap-and-go and giving away the crucial penalty a few phases later.
As long as the Blues scrum can continue performing like this, they will remain in a strong position.
More of the same
It says it all really that when Josh Goodhue won that 79ᵗʰ minute penalty, my shock lasted just a couple of seconds. It’s a little harsh to say, but this was another typical Chiefs performance.
As with pretty much every match this season – last week’s loss to the Highlanders was an aberration – the Chiefs found themselves starting slowly and conceding 2 tries before they managed to score one of their own. Then once again with the game on the line in the final minutes, questionable decisions and not good enough play ended up costing them.
This is an horrific run from the Chiefs and it needs to be stopped soon. It says it all that from 5 matches, they have come away with 4 bonus points for losing by 7 or less. They are staying within games, but are failing to put together the 80 minute performance needed to turn these close defeats into wins. And with Warren Gatland taking the British and Irish Lions to South Africa in less than a year, I can’t help but wonder how much his mind is on the Chiefs and if any changes will be made any time soon.