Blues make use of Hall pass vs Highlanders
Piri Weepu's imperfect heart would have been beating with pride last night as his young Blues understudy, Bryn Hall, turned his unexpected opportunity into a dream first start for his franchise.
Hall, as Weepu watched on from the stands, had an excellent match at halfback for the Blues who avenged their opening round defeat in Dunedin with a breezy and emphatic 30-12 victory over an outgunned Highlanders outfit.
Hall's clearance was sharp, his speed to the breakdown excellent and he even made the odd decisive dab when the opportunity presented. It was a timely effort from the 22-year-old who's being given a well-deserved chance after Weepu's dramatic health scare.
With Weepu set to miss around a month while he deals with a heart defect and a minor stroke suffered back at the start of the month, and Jamison Gibson-Park also laid up, Sir John Kirwan needed his youngster to step up and take ownership of the No 9 jersey.
He did that in spades last night, going the full 80 in a clinical - yes, clinical - display from a Blues outfit who produced easily their best performance of the season. It was their third victory, and takes them into the lead in the New Zealand conference on 16 points (though the Chiefs overnight would have been hunting that).
"It's been a testing week and Bryn over the last few weeks has been really stepping up when he's come on. Tonight, I just think he has arrived," Kirwan said. "He had a fantastic performance - he made that one break from the back of a lineout, he got to the breakdown well and passed the ball well. He was really strong for us."
This was a vastly improved Blues' effort after the two-paced nature of last week's victory over the Cheetahs. In front of a middling crowd of 16,700 they executed well, took their chances expertly and shut down the dangerous Highlanders backs pretty much at will. Their defence was particularly impressive.
Kirwan would have been rapt with the response of his men after a difficult week where they had to deal with the dramas around Weepu. His forwards won the physical contest, led brilliantly by skipper Luke Braid, debutant lock Hayden Triggs and a most impressive Jerome Kaino. Ma'a Nonu had a big match in the home backline, with young No 10 Simon Hickey and the classy Charles Piutau also stamping their marks on proceedings.
"They put us under a lot of pressure defensively early on, and I thought our scrum was solid, and in the lineout we missed only one. Ee were solid across the park and that's what we needed to be," added Kirwan, who had some special praise for the 80-minute efforts of Kaino and Nonu.
"They were both very special. I thought Jerome was very strong and Ma'a brought a calming influence and played really, really well. This feels like a bit of a start for me - that needs to be our line in the sand."
The Highlanders tried hard, none more so than the indefatigable Ben Smith, but just could not breach that Blues defensive line, nor retain possession long enough to wear it down.
The Blues were well worth the 17-9 lead they took into the sheds after first-half tries to George Moala and Ma'a Nonu.
Moala's opening try, in the 11th minute, owed a fair chunk to luck, but also to field position and intent as Bryn Hall's probing kick took a deflection (off Richard Buckman) into the hands of the wing who reacted sharply to make an angled run to the corner for a 7-0 lead.
Three straight Lima Sopoaga penalties edged the Highlanders into a 9-7 lead, before a combination of Hickey's boot, Hall's speed of action and Nonu's finishing power propelled the Blues into their eight-point halftime lead.
Nonu's nicely angled kick had created perfect field position four minutes from the break, Hall's dummy and run saw the little halfback pulled down just short and from the resultant ruck Nonu, with a little help from Steven Luatua, drove over.
The Blues, having finished the first half so well, started the second one pretty impressively too, with All Black Charles Piutau crossing for a seven-pointer, and a 27-12 lead, inside the first 10 minutes.
Phil Burleigh's missed touch proved costly as quality front-foot possession was shifted wide, allowing Piutau just enough space to shimmy out of the grasp of Ben Smith and over in the tackle of Sopoaga.
The only disappointment for the Blues was they they didn't quite finish the job and secure the four-try bonus point. "Yeah, it all got a little bit messy at the end," shrugged Kirwan. Never mind. Job well done.
Blues 30 (George Moala, Ma'a Nonu, Charles Piutau tries; Simon Hickey 3 pens, 3 cons) Highlanders 12 (Lima Sopoaga 4 pens). HT: 17-9.
MVP: Look no further than Bryn Hall. The young Blues halfback relished his chance to start and provided a sharpness that his backline lapped up.
Big moment: Charlie Piutau's brilliantly taken try early in the second half not only showed up his All Black rival Ben Smith but put his team out of reach.
All Black watch: Was that a smile on Steve Hansen's face. The sight of the enigmatic Ma'a Nonu and returned World Cup-winner Jerome Kaino both making big, bold fiurst starts of the season would have had the big fella beaming.