At Eden Park, Auckland: Blues 53 (Bryce Heem 2 tries 14min, 31min, Caleb Clarke 2 tries 17min, 43min, Beauden Barrett try 45min, Stephen Perofeta try 57min, Soane Vikena 2 tries 68min, 77min; Perofeta pen, 5 con), Queensland Reds 26 (Suliasi Vunivalu try 22min, Ryan Smith try 39min, Jock Campbell 2 tries 63min, 71min; James O’Connor 3 con). HT: 22-14.
Winning has become not just a habit, but of late a celebration for the suddenly irrepressible Blues in this Super Rugby Pacific season.
Leon MacDonald’s men, on Saturday night in their regular season home finale at Eden Park, lost All Blacks star Rieko Ioane early to 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 equaling the franchise record), improves them to a competition-best 11-1, and 50 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.
In case you haven’t been counting, 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 some sort of attacking form – even if their defense might need just a little bit of attention.
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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 night (43m on the carry), Hoskins Sotutu unleashed his skills and left four defenders in his wake and replacement hooker Soane Vikena enjoyed the evening with two late tries off the lineout drive route.
Beauden Barrett was excellent in the pivot, created and finished, and was one of three Blues backs to beat five defenders on the night. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck continued his positive formline with a team-high 72m (along with 5 defenders beaten, and one exhilarating clean break) and Bryce Heem’s two-try effort off the bench was notable. Caleb Clarke, too, maintained his surging form with a brace of tries and several blockbusting runs.
The Reds nailed hard, and showed some nice touches themselves to net four tries. Wing Suliasi Vunivalu, halfback Tate McDermott and lock Ryan Smith were their standouts. But they missed 32 tackles, and that’s just too high a number to have any chance.
The Blues had opened at a point a minute through the first 17 minutes. A beautiful run on the cutback line from fully replacement Heem and an 82-metre counter-atack finished by Clarke from a ruck had put the home side out to 17-0 before the big crowd of 19,690 had settled in their.
But the Reds – down a few key troops, but not in spirit – 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, a one-time Auckland schoolboy star with St Kent’s, was a huge figure in the Reds’ response over the second quarter, notching an excellent try himself on the inside line off his halfback, and then setting up the score on the stroke of 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), and after that it was only a matter of ensuring the bonus point as the tries kept coming for both sides. Replacement hooker Soane Vikena’s late brace and a nice set-piece backline move finished by Stephen Perofeta ensured that.
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 Clarke’s second try, closely followed by a scintillating five-pointer for 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. OK, some of the defending wasn’t the best. But it was hard not to appreciate the attacking qualities of both sides, and especially the Blues who might just have found a rich vein of form at the right time.
The big picture
The Blues have 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 (Brumbies and Waratahs away) not to lock up the minor championship, and the all -important home advantage for the finals. The Reds, now 7-5, and stuck on 31 points, are finding the realities of the trans-Tasman problem.
Clarke and Heem were impressive, and bagged a brace of tries apiece, but look no further than Tuivasa-Sheck as a man hitting form at the right time.