Blues' unbeaten run ends against Bulls
It was too little, too late from the Blues as they ran smack-bang into a Bulls-sized reality check at Eden Park today.
In front of 25,112 fans on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Sir John Kirwan's Blues found the big South Africans just too much to handle as they sunk to a 28-21 defeat - their first of the Super Rugby season.
A late try to Rene Ranger briefly raised the home team's hopes of a comeback victory as they closed to within four points, at 21-25, but an 80th-minute penalty to Morne Steyn sealed the Bulls' first ever victory on Eden Park.
The Bulls, with their outstanding pack denying the Blues the possession they had feasted on over the previous fortnight, were well worthy of their three tries to two victory which makes them three for three for the new season.
Both teams came into this match with their confidence high after a couple of wins, but it was the Bulls who imprinted their style and game-plan on to proceedings the better.
With No 8 Pierre Spies leading a brilliant loose forward trio and the back three of Zane Kirchner, Akona Ndungane and Lione Mapoe enjoying perfect conditions, the visitors dominated for long periods.
Kirwan had made six changes to his in-form side and in the end this probably hadn't done the Blues any favours as they struggled to settle into a rhythm in this match until it was too late.
The Bulls had led 15-6 at the break, wings Mapoe and Ndungane crossing for the only tries of the half.
Mapoe's came just inside the opening quarter when Ndungane did very well to retrieve a high kick, the big visiting forwards rumbled it up and the wing was put across in the left corner.
Five minutes later new Blues No 10 Baden Kerr paid dearly for a loose kick which saw the Bulls stretch out to their nine-point halftime lead.
Impressive Bulls flanker Deon Stegmann gathered the charged down ball and headed upfield. Eventually possession was shifted right, and Kirchner's flat pass put his wing one-on-one with Waisake Naholo, and that was no contest at all.
The Blues rattled off 10 straight points inside the first quarter of an hour of the second spell to lead 16-15 on the back of Kerr's third penalty and a very well-taken try by fullback Charles Piutau wide on the left.
But that just steeled the Bulls.
Three minutes later flanker Arno Botha crossed wide on the left, after another fabulous break up the middle by Ndungane, and when Morne Steyn added his second penalty soon after the South Africans led 25-16.
Halfback Jano Vermaak nearly made the game safe a dozen minutes from time but just lost the ball as he reached for the line, before Ranger raised home hopes four minutes from the end when he was put clear by Francis Saili and bumped off Kirchner for the five-pointer.
But at 21-25 in arrears the Blues needed things to fall their way over the final few minutes, which didn't happen as Steven Luatua was bundled into touch and Steyn applied the finishing touch with his boot.
The Blues now have a bye to reassess things. They hinted at their ability, but just weren't able to establish the possession platforms to give those backs of theirs the opportunities they would have liked on a sunny afternoon.
At Eden Park:
Bulls 28 (Lionel Mapoe, Akpona Ndugane, Arno Botha tries; Morne Steyn 3 pens 2 cons),
Blues 21 (Charles Piutau, Rene Ranger tries; Baden Kerr 3pens, con). Ht: 15-6.