Ugly win but Blues beat Cheetahs at Eden
As challenging as the trip back from South Africa can be, the Blues need drastic improvements if they are to be considered genuine contenders.
Not banking a win at Eden Park tonight, against this year's worst team, the Cheetahs, would have been akin to missing a two-inch putt.
Still, the Blues made their ugly 40-30 bonus point win seem exceedingly difficult. They will breathe a sigh of relief after scraping to improve their now 2-3 record.
The Cheetahs are a rabble - a side that has now finished a four-match losing tour and are desperate to return home. They have sharp attacking instincts and not much else, certainly no substance on defence.
Blues coach Sir John Kirwan pointed to last week's long haul journey home from the Republic, where they lost both matches, as excuses for his side's struggles to put together any fluid attacking movements; having their defence easily breached to concede three tries and not putting away the visitors.
His sentiments - labeling his side's effort a "great 80-minute performance" - were hard to buy into.
"It's been a tough week," Kirwan said. "It was a must-win for us and we managed to get five points. Don't underestimate how tough it is to fly back from South Africa.
"This is a real difficult game, physically. I was really pleased with the effort."
While the victory boosts the Blues' points tally, their form won't scare next week's opponents, the Highlanders.
On this evidence the southerners will fancy their chances, even.
The biggest cheer of the night was reserved for Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino. The 13,500 crowd were on their feet in the 53rd minute as the two star recruits came on for their first, respective, appearances of the season. But that also summed up the frustrating nature of the Blues' performance.
Rookie first five-eighth Simon Hickey again stepped up to land 20-points (eight-from-nine), which, ultimately, saved his side from what could have been an embarrassing defeat.
The consistent, fundamental mistakes that have plagued the Blues' efforts were all-too-frequent, though pedantic Argentine referee Francisco Pastrana didn't help the stop-start affair.
In what is becoming a major concern for two All Blacks props - Charlie Faumuina and Tony Woodcock - the Blues scrum was again shunted around, too.
Liaki Moli, Tevita Li and Jackson Willison, who otherwise had some nice touches, were also all guilty of making unforced handling errors in the scrappy firsthalf.
Had it not been for Steven Luatua's strike from a line-out drive the Blues would have been chasing the game early. After some indifferent form, the All Blacks flanker stepped up with his best outing of the season.
Cheetahs coach Naka Drotske questioned the decision to yellow card flanker Boom Prinsloo and strongly disagreed with a very debatable try awarded to Blues centre George Moala. Referee Pastrana overruled TMO Glenn Newman, who strongly suggested a double movement had been committed.
"If you want to overrule the TMO then it has to be clear and obvious," Drotske said. "If that wasn't a double movement then I don't understand the rule."
That call set-up a 30-16 half-time lead for Kirwan's men, but their secondhalf efforts were no better than the first. Their midfield defence was exposed by the speed of Cheetahs wingers Hennie Daniller and Cornal Hendricks.
Benji Marshall came on for the final 15-minutes at fullback, but his impact was near-nonexistent as the Blues were forced to defend their lead, rather than show any kind of ruthless streak.
Kirwan was thankful to break a two-match losing run. But, privately at least, he will realise his team must be much better to compete with the Highlanders. Or anyone else, for that matter.
"Next week we definitely have to raise our level," he said. "They skunked us down there last time."
Blues 40 (Steven Luatua, George Moala, Tevita Li, Tony Woodcock tries Simon Hickey pen 3, con 4) Cheetahs 30 (Boom Prinsloo, Cornal Hendricks, Hennie Daniller tries Johan Goosen pen 2, con, Elgar Watts pen, con 2). HT: 30-16
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