Blues blast Reds to lift win streak to 11
Leon MacDonald’s men had too much firepower for the Queenslanders, writes Marc Hinton.
Stuff NZ Newspapers
Winning has become not just a habit, but of late a celebration for the suddenly irrepressible Blues in this Super Rugby Pacific season. Coach Leon MacDonald’s men, last night in their regular season home finale at Eden Park, lost All Blacks star Rieko Ioane early to what appeared a hamstring injury, but not anything in the way of form, momentum and confidence as they comfortably dispatched Brad Thorn’s Queensland Reds to bank yet another bonus-point victory. The eight tries to four victory was the Blues’ 11th on the bounce this season (one shy of equalling the franchise record), improving them to a competition-best 11-1, and 50 competition points. Ominously, they now have a seven-point buffer on their closest pursuers (the Brumbies and Crusaders), with the minor premiership all but sewn up with a fortnight remaining in the regular season. That’s also 19 tries, and 124 points, in the last two matches against Australian opposition, after last round’s 71-28 dismantling of the Rebels. These guys are in attacking form – even if their defence might need a bit of attention. It was another outstanding attacking display by the Blues, with the pack again laying an excellent foundation, and the backs having a field day with their speed and execution. Lock James Tucker continued his standout form with another big nigh (43m on the carry), Hoskins Sotutu unleashed his skills with four defenders beaten and replacement hooker Soane Vikena enjoyed the night with two late tries off the lineout drive route. Beauden Barrett was excellent in the pivot – one of three Blues backs to beat five defenders. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck continued his positive form line with a team-high 72m (along with five defenders beaten, and one exhilarating clean break) and Bryce Heem’s two-try effort off the bench was notable. Caleb Clarke continued his surging form with a brace of tries and several blockbusting runs. The Reds toiled hard, and showed nice touches to net four tries. Wing Suliasi Vunivalu, halfback Tate McDermott and lock Ryan Smith were their standouts. But they missed 32 tackles. The Blues had opened at a point a minute through the first 17 minutes. A beautiful run on the cutback line from replacement midfielder Heem and an 82-metre counter attack finished by Clarke from a ruck had put the home side out to 17-0 before the crowd of 19,690 had fully settled in their seats. But the Reds were not going to roll over and play roadkill, as their mates from the Rebels had eight days earlier, and they scored two of the remaining three tries of the half to scrape back within eight (22-14) at the break. Big wing Vunivalu, one-time Auckland schoolboy star, notched an excellent try on the inside line off his halfback, and then setting up the score on the stroke of Leon MacDonald was rapt with the bonus-point win.. “A five-pointer was critical for us as we get into the pointy end of the season, and taking on a dangerous Reds side,” said the Blues coach afterwards. MacDonald conceded some of the defensive work on the line would have to be looked closely at, as would discipline and decision-making at the breakdown. ‘‘But given what’s happening with ball in hand, he felt the positives far outweighed the negatives at present. “We are getting the ball to the edges, and we’re going through the middle, so we’ve got a really nice balance, and I thought some of our kicks in behind and seeing space was really good tonight. ‘‘Watching Beauden Barrett chasing through grubbers is a beautiful thing.” halftime for lock Ryan Smith when he skinned Clarke on the charge. In between those two Reds’ seven-pointers Heem, who came on for Ioane after just 10 minutes, completed a brilliant stint with his second try when some exquisite handling from the Blues backs punished the visitors for an error on the carry in their own half. The Blues put the match on ice early in the second spell with two quick tries (to Clarke and Barrett). Then it was only a matter of ensuring the bonus point as the tries kept coming. Replacement hooker Soane Vikena’s late brace and a nice finish by Stephen Perofeta ensured that. Big moment Look no further than the first five minutes of the second spell. The Blues opened with a tricky switcheroo on the kickoff, won the ball, then a penalty and ran in Caleb Clarke’s second try, closely followed by a scintillating fivepointer for Beauden Barrett to stretch out to 32-14. Match rating: 8/10 A high-quality, skilful encounter in which both teams contributed to a pretty decent spectacle. Some of the defending wasn’t the best, but it was hard not to appreciate the attacking qualities of both sides, especially the Blues. The big picture The Blues, having now won 11 on the bounce and at 11-1, with 49/50 competition points, would have to fall off the cliff over the final fortnight not to lock up the minor championship, and the allimportant home advantage for the finals. The Reds are finding the realities of the trans-Tasman component challenging.