Blues stumble on halves pairing of the future
The Blues may have inadvertently stumbled on their halves partnership of the future, but it was a couple of returning old-stagers who made the biggest statement in their Super Rugby win over the Highlanders at Eden Park on Saturday night.
It was an emotional night for John Kirwan's team which dedicated its third victory of the season to World Cup-winning halfback Piri Weepu who is sidelined for a month or so with health problems.
Weepu's replacement, 22-year-old Bryn Hall, was magnificent in his first start for the franchise, rightly earning the plaudits of his coach for a crisp and accurate performance, going the full 80 minutes as the Blues ran in three tries to none in a 30-12 win.
The bloke a spot outside him, 20-year-old rookie Simon Hickey, was not too shabby either with another top-notch kicking display interspersed with mature playmaking. It's not too hard to imagine these two running the Blues show for a few years to come, such is their age and apparent upside.
"I thought our nine and 10 were really good," Kirwan said after easily his team's best performance of the season. "Simon continued his growth and played with maturity. It's been a testing week for Bryn, but I think he has arrived. He had a fantastic performance."
There's no doubt Hall's speed round the paddock and quickness of clearance helped get the Blues' attack game going, and Hickey enjoyed the slick service from his halfback with another composed display.
But the Blues desperately needed the physicality, experience and decision-making of returning All Blacks Jerome Kaino and Ma'a Nonu as they soaked up plenty of Highlanders pressure in the first half to lead 17-9, and then dominated the second spell in what visiting coach Jamie Joseph termed a "clinical" display.
Both Nonu and Kaino were making their first starts of the year after belated returns to the franchise, and both showed the benefits of a smart re-entry plan. Kaino's physicality up front was immense and Nonu provided a delightful mix of bullocking runs and deft kicks to keep the Highlanders defence guessing.
"They were both special, Jerome was very strong and Ma'a brought a calming influence," said Kirwan who called the Blues' performance "a line in the sand" for the season.
Added skipper Luke Braid, who seemed to thrive having Kaino alongside: "There's three defenders on him and he manages to get go-forward. He really got us gain-line and put in some great tackles. I thought Ma'a was awesome as well."
Kaino was rapt to get through 80 minutes as he launches a comeback he hopes will take him all the way back into Steve Hansen's All Blacks squad.
"It was great to get some ball in hand and run a bit, and I wanted to complement what Steven [Luatua] and Luke were doing. Steve is really good in the loose, and Luke does a bit of both, so I just wanted to get a bit of go-forward."
Kaino admitted he'd felt a significant lift in level as he put in his first full game of Super Rugby since 2011. "The intensity, and the physicality is a couple of levels up [from Japan]. I enjoyed it, and a lot of feelings and memories came flooding back. It was great to get out there and survive the 80."
Kaino is also feeling the benefits of a couple of years away from the crash and bash. "The body is feeling good, and the fitness is good. I just need to get used to that weekly grind and the physicality. I can only get that by playing. But my time in Japan definitely did my body the world of good."
Kirwan has options in his squad now, especially with Francis Saili and Keven Mealamu strong possibilities of returning this week, and Patrick Tuipulotu not far behind them.
Elsewhere over the weekend it was Jake White's Sharks who made the biggest statement, their 32-10 victory in an at-times spiteful contest against the Israel Folau-less Waratahs in Durban extending their lead at the top of the standings to six points.
But you can throw a blanket over the chasing group, with three points between the next eight sides.
The Chiefs picked up three points courtesy of a dazzling late comeback to draw 34-34 with the Bulls in Pretoria, the Reds leant heavily on the boot of Quade Cooper to send the Stormers home winless from their tour, while the Rebels' Friday night upset in Melbourne stalled the Brumbies' challenge.