Blues make hard work of it against Cheetahs

MARC HINTON AT EDEN PARK
Last updated 10:04 23/03/2014

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If there's such a thing as an ugly bonus-point victory, this was it. The scoreboard might suggest the Blues found some sort of a groove in a scorefest at the garden of Eden, but the reality was a far less conclusive verdict.

Sure, Sir John Kirwan's men collected the maximum points haul and this four tries to three result will have done their confidence - dented by back-to-back defeats in South Africa - some good. But the Cheetahs didn't really show up until after halftime, and the Blues can thank their lucky stars that they were able to rack up a quick 17 points while a man up in the second quarter.

Without that burst of scoring this could have been very, very ugly indeed. Kirwan will be wise to ponder that as he mulls over the tape of this low-skill, high-scoring affair.

The Cheetahs, who have never won on Eden Park, were playing their fourth straight match on the road trip from hell, and have now lost them all. They were ripe for the plucking - but instead made the Blues sweat all the way to the finish with a vastly improved second-half effort.

The Blues, who led 30-16 at halftime, made very hard work of it, relying on that 17-point scoring burst in the second quarter while a man up to establish some breathing room, and being held scoreless for nearly 25 minutes of the second spell.

Neither team's cause was helped by a pedantic refereeing display by Argentine referee Francisco Pastrana who blew 22 penalties in a whistle-ridden affair that ruined what hope the 13,500-strong had of enjoying a pleasant evening in Mt Eden.

The positives for the home side? Steven Luatua had a strong game up front, Simon Hickey continued his rapid rise with a near faultless kicking display - eight of nine for a 20-point haul - and Kirwan got Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino nearly a half-hour under their belts in a pretty ragged second half.

But the Blues' defence was awful after halftime, their scrum struggled for most of the night and they failed to string much of a possession game together against a Cheetahs outfit who warmed to their task.

After an opening quarter of an hour dominated by Pastrana's whistle (two penalties apiece the result), All Black loose forward Luatua crossed for the game's opening try, and a 13-6 lead. Predictably, it came via a Cheetahs error (a lost lineout), as would so many of the home team's opportunities in this match.

The Cheetahs struck back quickly through flanker Boom Prinsloo via the lineout-drive route, but the South African hero quickly turned zero when he was sinbinned soon after and the Blues then went on their 17-point scoring run.

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Prinsloo had been judged "cynical" by Pastrana as Jackson Willison's probing left boot, not for the last time, found the visiting defence in disarray. Off went Prinsloo and up went the Blues score.

Hickey added his third penalty before George Moala and Tevita Li both crossed to extend the lead to 30-13. Moala's score came after Luke Braid did well to gather Piri Weepu's box kick which was allowed to bounce, keying a sweeping move downfield that ended in the midfielder scrambling over. Pastrana, to the delight of the home crowd, over-ruled the TMO's recommendation for a double- movement.

Li's try came as the Cheetahs backfield defence degenerated into Keystone Kops mode, the normally classy Willie le Roux making a hash of a nicely weighted Willison grubber, gifting the 19-year-old winger his second try of the season.

The expectation was it could really open up for the Blues in the second half, but instead the home team spent much of it under the pump as the Cheetahs finally got their attack game going, to ask some serious questions of the home defence.

Cornal Hendriks badly exposed the Blues midfield on a jinking 50m run to the line round the 60-minute mark to close the gap to seven (23-30) and big Hennie Daniller did something similar a dozen minutes from time when le Roux and Rayno Benjamin opened the Blues up, and the Cheetahs were back within striking distance.

In between All Black prop Tony Woodcock brought up the bonus point when he burrowed over from close, and it was left to Hickey's boot to edge the Blues out to a 10-point margin they held to the finish.

- Sunday Star Times

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