The Waratahs delivered a slick performance to down the Blues 27-22 in Auckland.
It was a record-breaking feat for the Tahs, who haven’t ever won at Eden Park. They thoroughly deserved it as well. They were superior in most facets of play, smart in circumventing their weaknesses and clinical in exploiting those of the Blues.
Boring as their approach may be, boy is it effective, and they’ve underlined why they’re considered strong contenders for a play-off spot.
For the Blues it was another deeply disappointing performance marked by poor breakdown work, fundamental handling errors and general lethargy. The defeat dents their play-off chances with most of the teams below them in the table having two games in hand.
The Tahs haven’t strayed too far from a fairly-structured approach at any stage of the tournament and didn’t against the Blues – their chosen avenue of attack being attritional phase play and ground-gaining tactical nudges. The Blues have shown a vulnerability against sides who have adopted this approach and they were exposed once again by a very well organised side.
Such was the Tahs’ dominance that the Blues’ first entry into their 22m area came in the 16th minute. Up to that point, the Sydney franchise had kept possession brilliantly and when they did relinquish the pill it was to drive the hosts deep into their territory with well placed tactical kicks.
The Tahs were 10-0 up by the time the Blues first entered their red zone. Flyhalf Daniel Halangahu, who controlled the game superbly, scored after his forwards had gone through two passages of play which featured 11 and nine phases respectively. The Blues’ resistance had to end eventually, and did when Halangahu slipped through a poor tackle. He added the extras then kicked a penalty to take his side to a handy lead.
However, the Blues regrouped and scored thanks to an excellent solo effort by Anthony Tuitavake, who stood up Sam Norton-Knight then put a massive fend on Rob Horne en route to the tryline.
But the Blues failed to kick on from there because of their failings at the breakdown. The Tahs, lead by expert scavenger Phil Waugh, were allowed to slow their ball at ruck time and this killed their continuity. The Tahs are the second-best defensive unit in the tournament and were never going to be troubled by a side who were recycling the ball as slowly as the Blues were.
The visitors were patient in defence, absorbing a wave of Blues pressure, then scoring against the run of play when scrumhalf Luke Burgess intercepted a Jerome Kaino pass and sprinted through untouched. The Blues tried unsuccessfully to launch a counter-strike, but they were predictable in attack and picked off with relative ease by the Tahs.
Trailing 17-8 at half-time, the Blues would have been acutely aware that they needed to be first on the scoreboard after the break. They started the second half infinitely better than they did the first and had soon narrowed the deficit to three points.
Flanker Onosai’i Auva’a was quickest to react after the ball spat loose from a messy lineout and powered his way over the chalk. Jimmy Gopperth converted and there was a discernible swing in momentum. But again the Blues failed to build on their good work and conceded a soft try, Tahs hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau scoring after a simple lineout move in the Blues’ 22m.
Halangahu’s second penalty extended the lead to 11 points and put the Tahs in sight of their first win in Auckland.
However, the Blues somehow summoned the resolve to drag themselves back into the contest, thanks primarily to improved ball protection at the breakdown. The Tahs struggled to cope with the speed at which they played when they got clean ball, and the width they got on their game stretched them to their absolute limit.
Michael Hobbs scored a converted try with seven minutes remaining to draw within five, but the Blues conspired to botch a number of good opportunities with basic breakdown infringements and poor option taking. Ultimately the Tahs held on for the drought-breaking win.
By Ryan Vrede