Blues fall to Stormers in Cape Town with Matt Duffie's sending off proving costly
This loss will probably hurt more than any other in Tana Umaga's two-year tenure at the Blues. It sure was a brutal way to cripple their playoff hopes.
The Blues were genuinely gallant, doing everything they could to overcome the Stormers in Cape Town on Friday night (Saturday NZ Time). They scrambled and defended with heart and hunger but, in the end, succumbed to relentless second half pressure to fall 30-22 after wing Matt Duffie conceded two yellow cards - one in each half - to be sent from the field with 14 minutes remaining.
Duffie's first yellow came for repeated team infringing - four successive penalties early in the match. His second for diving on a player on the ground.
The defeat, their sixth of the season but first to an overseas team, in all likelihood draws a definitive line through the Blues' finals hopes, leaving them five points behind the Highlanders, who are fourth in the New Zealand conference but play the Force in Perth on Saturday night.
This result was not without controversy - referee Jaco van Heerden and TMO Shaun Veldsman leaving themselves open to accusations of inconsistency.
Of particular concern was an incident in the 47th minute which saw a groggy Piers Francis leave the field after copping a high swinging arm from Stormers second five-eighth Shaun Treeby. While there was no malice, given the way high tackles are now policed a yellow or red card was certainly warranted. It would not surprise to see Treeby cited post match, but that will be of little comfort to Umaga.
The Blues will be frustrated by the decision as they had scored two tries and 12 points to take a 12-10 half time lead after Springboks lock Eben Etzebeth was yellow carded for an open handed push to the face of Akira Ioane, who instigated the scuffle.
As it was, Stormers captain Siya Kolisi nabbed a couple of crucial second half turnovers and the home side scored two late tries to hold on.
The Blues thwarted much of what the Stormers threw at them, including their rolling maul. But as the crowd lifted, the big Stormers pack kept coming to build pressure in the final quarter. Possession swung, and the visitors ultimately could not stop the momentum.
Charlie Faumuina was immense for the Blues - setting up two tries to George Moala and James Parsons with offloads and footwork that would leave backs proud. His 60-minute performance was a highlight, as was the contribution from halfback Augustine Pulu, whose general option taking was sound. Parsons also had another busy outing in an at times scrappy match.
Sonny Bill Williams' return from concussion was solid. He produced a nice ball to put Melani Nanai through but had limited chances to shine elsewhere. Still, Williams largely carried strongly and went looking for work - one pick and go and offload set up Blake Gibson's try. But he also made one error where he lost ball five metres out from Stormers line, squandering a valuable attacking chance.
New Zealand teams have won 32 of 34 games against overseas opposition this year - both of those losses were inflicted by the Stormers, who also rolled the Chiefs in Cape Town.
Stormers 30 (Siya Kolisi, Dillyn Leyds, Sikhumbuzo Notshe tries; SP Marais 3 pen, 3 con) Blues 22 (George Moala, James Parsons, Blake Gibson tries; Pires Francis 2 con, Bryn Gatland pen). HT: 10-12