Blues leave Hurricanes bruised in Auckland
It should come as no surprise, really. The Hurricanes losing a game most expected they would win. We've seen it all before. At least they're true to form, having alternated between success and failure over the past five weeks.
How they transform from world beaters - last week dismantling the defending champion Chiefs in such devastating fashion - to also-rans - losing 37-24 to the Blues tonight - only they can explain.
The yellow and black outfit stays the same; the performance fluctuates dramatically. And, until that changes, they will continue to be pretenders, not contenders.
In this incredibly unpredictable competition, nothing is impossible. But with a bye in the final round and only two more games against the Crusaders (home) and Chiefs (away) to push their claims, Mark Hammett's men are in serious strife.
Stranded mid-table, it will certainly be a long June break as they ponder their tenuous prospects. About the only positive was a four-try bonus point, secured with two minutes remaining.
On the back of a supremely dominant tight-five effort, the Blues clung to their flimsy hopes of making the playoffs by breaking a two-match losing skid and maintaining their spooky unbeaten record at Eden Park this season. But even with the five points they still sit four behind the fourth-placed Chiefs in the New Zealand conference.
Jerome Kaino was again in menacing form, barging over in the second-half to seal the bonus point win. Workaholic captain Luke Braid provided relentless support, as did big lock Patrick Tuipulotu and Charlie Faumuina. That platform allowed the Blues outside backs to flourish. George Moala, back in his natural position on the wing, ghosted 40-metres untouched to score and in-from fullback Lolagi Visinia touched down from a perfectly-placed Pita Ahki grubber.
In his first start rookie first five-eighth Ihaia West had a dream ride, but did enough to show he has the talent to succeed at this level, though he will want to improve his goal kicking after missing three attempts.
Apart from an immaculate opening 10-minutes, where Beauden Barrett nailed a penalty and Faifili Levave profited from a successful drive, the Canes were blown away. They weren't helped by a dubious penalty try and yellow card, given to fullback Matt Proctor for an apparent intentional knockdown with the Blues hot on attack.
TMO Glenn Newman won't be popular in the capital after such a controversial decision, which allowed the Blues to spark their revival, but that's about the extent of the blame game.
From there, the Canes struggled to get anything going.
Crucially, the Blues identified the need to shutdown the midfield punch provided by Alapati Leiua. The second five-eighth has been an integral figure in the Canes' attack this season. Every time he tried to change the angle, though, he was crunched. Even Julian Savea battled to find holes in the resolute Blues' defence.
Starved of the quick ball they thrive on and lacking punch, seemingly constant inaccuracies and subsequent lack of ball retention left the Canes frustrated. Their early dominance quickly faded.
Barrett's running game was also nullified, and his ball carriers lacked support at the breakdown, where Braid formed a competitive presence to win a string of penalties.
Brothers Julian and Ardie Savea stuck in the second spell but the visitors never genuinely threatened to steal this match.
The only downside for the Blues was a leg injury to Peter Saili, who limped off after 30 minutes. That allowed Steven Luatua a rare, extended chance to make an impact, something he will need more of to regain his spot in the All Blacks.
Blues 37 (penalty try, Lolagi Visinia, Jerome Kaino, George Moala, Patrick Tuipulotu tries Ihaia West pen 2, con 3) Hurricanes 24 (Faifili Levave 2, Julian Savea, Ardie Savea tries, Beauden Barrett con 2)