Monday, July 27, 2020

Blues-21 Chiefs-17

If edited just right, Solomon Alaimolo’s try in the corner in the 46th minute could easily be used by coaches to teach players exactly how to fix your tackler before offloading.  

Chiefs scrum half Brad Weber does it first, then it’s his out half Aaron Cruden, next is Anton Lienert-Brown, and finally there’s Alaimolo with the space to belt up the touchline and dot it down.  As textbook a finish as you’ll see at any level.  But like I said, you’d have to use some editing tools to hide a couple of elements that take from the overall look of the score.  You needn’t touch the portion I described above, that’s all fine - just the bits that came both before and after it.

First we have to explain how the space was created to put the Blues defenders on the back foot, and this is frustrating for them since it came about after they were putting excellent pressure on Number 8 Pita Sowakula as he emerged with the ball from a scrum in the Chiefs half.  A hit from Blue 9 Finlay Christie forced it loose, and time seemed to stand still as it fell to the ground, coming back up a few feet off the ground.

It was Weber who was first to react; he was fortunate enough to be able to take it on the run and with the help of the excellent support provided by his outside backs, the rest was made to look incredibly easy.  Sadly for Warren Gatland’s men, the good fortune was to begin running out for them at pretty much the moment Aliamalo pressed the ball to the Eden Park turf.  

The last Blue to attempt a tackle was their winger Caleb Clarke who was steaming across to cover from the opposite wing.  He was always going to be too late to stop the try, yet as many do in that situation, he couldn’t stop himself lunging forward and ended up landing on his opponent as he was in the act of scoring.

As a Leinster fan I was easily reminded of a similar incident in the 2018 Champions Cup semifinal against the Scarlets (we did one of our #RetroRugby pods on it back in June) when Fergus McFadden’s day was ended as he was challenged by Steff Evans after also scoring in the corner.  The same fate befell Aliamalo and although I don’t think for a second there was malicious intent in either challenge, it was still reckless enough to at least be in yellow card territory.

It was one of those situations where the commentators don’t say anything so you doubt yourself for seeing it a different way - they said something like “he’s hurt himself” as if it was somehow self-inflicted.  But I thought it was at least worth a second look upstairs by the officials, who I thought had a disappointing enough afternoon all round as it happens.

When Damien Mackenzie effortlessly stroked over the conversion from the touchline, then adding a penalty just a few minutes later to lead by 3, it marked the end of a decent fightback by the Chiefs after falling 14 points behind in the first fifteen minutes.  Perhaps it wasn’t as dramatic as the 24-point lead they gave back to the Highlanders in the previous round, but it was definitely needed for a team that was staring it’s 6th straight loss full in the face.

All they had to do to end the streak was to bring this hard-earned lead home.

I should probably go back to the beginning and harp on all that had gone before - the Blues went in to this match 7-point favourites with the bookies (10 with me in my preview) and had been on something of a losing run of their own after defeats in both Christchurch and Wellington dampened their impressive start to the campaign.  I was beginning to think my decision to adopt them as my Super Rugby Aotearoa writeup team of choice had somehow jinxed them!

But shortly after the Chiefs’ starting 10 Kaleb Trask failed to find touch with a penalty from midfield, a set play along the Blues’ backline was executed flawlessly allowing fullback Matt Duffie to storm through a gap and under the posts.  He was at 15 because after Beauden Barrett had been playing there since Round 1, Otere Black had been doing nicely at outhalf until a knock in Wellington meant he could only appear from the bench here.

Now it was time for Beauden to be playmaker from the kickoff, and it was no surprise that he handled the role extremely well.  The timing of his pass to Reiko Ioane was sublime on the way to putting Duffie through, his territorial kicking was mostly well above standard throughout, and when it came to marshalling his troops through a series of phases, he was making the right decisions at the right times.

This was evident just a few minutes after they took the lead, when a Blues lineout at halfway led to a 15-phase set that included several gainline breaking carries by Beauden himself, Reiko who has been a revelation at 13, but most of all with the help of his forwards, particularly the front five.  In fact the second try can be traced back to the penalty that led to the lineout, when a Chiefs set play was thwarted by a thundering hit by prop Tu'ungafasi and backed up by jackling from hooker Kurt Eklund.  Eventually it was inspirational skipper Patrick Tuipulotu who got the ball over the line meaning the home side were 14-0 up and running at a point a minute.

All they had to do to get back to winning ways was bring the two score advantage home.

But that’s when the penalty count began to build up.  The next one they shipped was extremely harsh to say the least - Dalton Papali’i was clearly trapped at the breakdown yet ref Brendon Pickerill refused to acknowledge the back rower's determination to show he was trying to roll away.  This got the Chiefs back into opposition territory, a further penalty got them to the line, and there was even another advantage again as the aptly-named Lachlan Boshier crashed over to score.

And the penalties continued through to halftime for the home side, leading the ref to take Tuipolutu aside at the 34th minute and say something along the lines of “if there are any more down here (near the try line), there will be a card".  There were other errors from the Blues during this spell, with an overthrown lineout here and a forward pass there (although I felt the latter, by Beauden, could easily have been called flat).

This gave the Chiefs plenty of opportunity to bring the scores level before halftime, but when they weren’t able to take advantage of favourable bounces and penalty calls, they were unable to find a way past the Blues well-drilled defence, which has arguably been their best feature since I’ve been following their progress despite the losses.  

It was probably that failure to capitalise on their two-thirds possession and territory before the break that prompted Gatland to bring on Cruden for Trask at halftime, and as I said back at the start, this led to a 10-point swing that put the Chiefs ahead.  But on a day when there were several “if only” moments from start to finish, when Reiko Ioane had another impressive line break only to offload it straight to Quinn Tupaea, who was only on because of that injury to Aliamalo and proceeded to drop it.

From this scrum the Blues, led again by Beauden’s class and strong carrying from the pack, worked their way up the field until eventually scrum half Christie was able to reach out and get the ball down on the line.  This was another time the officials didn’t cover themselves in glory as their on-field decision was "no try" only for the TMO to rightly confirm it has been grounded.

All they had to do now was bring this four-point lead home.

Well, as you can see by the final score, they managed it, but the last 25 or so minutes were anything but uneventful.  It wasn’t like the Chiefs had a load of opportunities in that time; in fact, the possession and territory stats were completely reversed from the first half.  The closing stages were mostly about the Blues’ inability to put the margin out of reach, with the penalties often coming in the opposition 22 and stopping hard-earned progress.

And before I give more credit to the home defence, an honourable nod must be sent in Sam Cane’s direction, as he led the overall tackling charts on the day with none missed, 18 made, and two of them apparently made with a nasty stinger in the arm he was leading with.  However impressive his stats may be, this run of defeats on the bounce cannot be good for the new All Blacks skipper and I wonder if he’s itching for test rugby to return even more than the rest of us.

Sorry for going back to the officials one more but I can’t ignore the annoying amount of scrum resets.  They were scattered throughout the contest but probably the one that helped the Blues the most was one that was called at 67:44 yet didn’t produce an outcome until 69:54 when the home side got a rare penalty of their own.

Eventually the Chiefs did manage to force their way into an attacking position (no thanks to Cruden as he failed to put a penalty to touch same as Trask had earlier) and following a lineout at the 22, they proceeded to bombard the Blues line forcing their tacklers into yet more heroics. Remember the warning from the referee earlier?  Any more no-no’s down here and someone will go to the naughty step? 

Well it’s never easy to execute a goal-line stand without some penalty advantages, and while Blues sub Plummer eventually did see yellow, how the card wasn’t shown much, much earlier than the 78th minute I’ll never know.  I suppose it was one of those situation when the defence “earned their own good fortune” as they hit the Chiefs ball carriers often two at a time around the whitewash and before they really had any time to make the most of the extra man, sub lock Jack Goodhue burrowed deep into a breakdown to force a penalty that effectively won the match.

Dare I find fault with the officials once more?  I guess I dare, because I really thought Sowakula being unable to recycle the ball was as much down to Blue 18 Sione Mafileo having his arms around him while on the ground as it was Goodhue’s jackling, but the Eden Park crowd certainly wasn’t complaining and since for now they’re also my team, neither am I.

So the Blues got back to winning ways, and with the Crusaders still to visit Auckland in the final round after slipping up themselves on Saturday, there could be a few more twists and turns in this Aotearoa tale before it’s done.  I definitely believe Leon McDonald’s men still have it in them to mount a challenge over the coming weeks, but if they are to bring the title home, they first must be able to do a better job of bringing a lead home, because they very nearly blew it for a third week in a row.

If anything can be said with absolute certainty since I have been writing up these matches from the other side of the world, it’s that each one has made more more and more excited to starting harping on Leinster Rugby once more.  Just a few more weeks of these 4:30am Sunday kickoffs should get me there!  JLP



Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019