Blues vs Chiefs result: Super Rugby Pacific playoffs set as ...

1 Jun 2024

Josh Ioane scores a try to deny the Blues a bonus point. Photo / Photosport

Blues 31

Chiefs 17

By Liam Napier at Eden Park

Blues vs Chiefs - Figure 1
Photo New Zealand Herald

Super Rugby Pacific’s quarter-finals are set, and the Hurricanes are top dogs.

A tense, tight race to secure pole position went down to the final minute of the regular season as the Blues blew a three-try lead in their quest to secure a treasured bonus-point victory over local rivals the Chiefs at Eden Park.

The Hurricanes’ 41-14 victory, which featured a Salesi Rayasi hat-trick, against the Highlanders in Wellington earlier on Saturday left the Blues needing a bonus-point win to bag top spot.

For much of the second half, after pulling away from a 12-7 halftime lead, the Blues comfortably held a three-try buffer on the Chiefs.

Two late tries from Chiefs midfielder Quinn Tupaea and replacement playmaker Josh Ioane, though, flipped the script to hand the Hurricanes first place and leave the 22,194 crowd deflated as they departed for the Eden Park exits.

Despite claiming a five-tries-to-three victory and improving to 12-2 for the season, the Blues will rue their final 10 minutes when they let home advantage slip through their grasp after leading 31-7 midway through the second half.

The Blues could’ve, should’ve, shut the door. That lack of ruthlessness could come back to haunt them.

Blues coach Vern Cotter, though, downplayed the final seedings, preferring to focus on improvement from last week’s loss to the Crusaders in Christchurch.

“We set high standards,” Cotter said. “The team improved a lot with most things from last week. That’s what we take from the game. If you’d given me that score at the start of the season I would’ve taken it over the Chiefs.

“If you want to win the title you have to beat everyone so it doesn’t matter. There will be parts of that game we’ll try get better. Perhaps get a bit more control in the last 10 minutes; a little bit more edge in the last part of the first half.

“The danger of finishing first is your feet lift. We know we’ve got a lot of work to do. It wasn’t a total performance but it was a good one.”

Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu was more open in his disappointment with the finish.

“The goal was to try win with a bonus point,” Tuipulotu said. “It’s frustrating but in perspective we could not be here in this position.”

The Blues and Hurricanes, both with two losses and splitting their two matches, have been the dominant forces all season.

It is fitting, then, at the end of the regular season, one point separates those contenders. Few could suggest Clark Laidlaw’s Hurricanes, the surprise package of the season after overcoming the loss of Ardie Savea and Cam Roigard, are not deserving of claiming top spot.

Blues vs Chiefs - Figure 2
Photo New Zealand Herald

While playoff matches are a different beast, the Blues and Hurricanes will be heavily favoured to contest this year’s final.

Quarter-final permutations swung with every movement, every try, at Eden Park. Right to the dramatic conclusion as the Chiefs stayed in the fight.

Dalton Papali'i in action against the Chiefs. Photo / Photosport

By the finish, the Blues’ late defensive blunders ensured the Hurricanes will host the soon-to-be-defunct Melbourne Rebels in their quarter-final next Saturday.

The Blues will welcome the Fijian Drua after they ended the seven-time defending champion Crusaders’ flatlining campaign with their dominant win against the Rebels in Lautoka.

The Highlanders will trek to Canberra to meet the third-placed Brumbies. And the Chiefs, who were already locked in fourth, will host the Reds in Hamilton next Friday in the first quarter-final.

Home advantage isn’t everything – as the Blues found out two years ago when the Crusaders stunned them in the one-sided final at Eden Park.

It is, though, highly advantageous. The Blues’ now 13-game unbeaten run at Eden Park is testament to the rise they get playing in home comforts.

The Hurricanes are yet to lose in Wellington this year, too.

While the Chiefs, last year’s bridesmaids, have underwhelmed this season, it would be foolish to read too much into this result when they had nothing to gain.

With the quarter-finals looming into view, both teams had late withdrawals. The Blues pulled halfback Taufa Funaki and All Blacks centre Rieko Ioane, the latter forcing a major backline reshuffle. The Chiefs, already resting influential All Blacks Anton Lienert-Brown and Tupou Vaa’i, excluded outside backs Shaun Stevenson and Emoni Narawa to further weaken their side.

The Blues celebrate a try for Hoskins Sotutu against the Chiefs. Photo / Photosport

There is, however, cause for concern in the Chiefs’ ongoing scrum issues. Their 9-5 record thus far speaks to their inconsistencies. This defeat is also the first time in three years the Chiefs have lost two games on the bounce after the Hurricanes upset in Hamilton last week – and their fourth successive loss at Eden Park.

Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan was, however, far from dejected.

“We’re disappointed because we lost the game. The Blues are the arch enemy from up the road and they’ve been going really well but pretty proud of our willingness to stick in the fight,”McMillan said. “I know the scoreline doesn’t reflect it but I thought there wasn’t a helluva lot between the two teams when you take out all the fluff. I thought there were aspects of our game tonight that were the best we’ve seen since the bye.”

Asked if he was satisfied with denying Blues a bonus point, McMillan offered a prediction.

“Not really because we’ll end up playing them back in the final in three weeks.”

To get there the Chiefs must trek the hard road from fourth. Get past the Reds - no easy feat - and they must then win two playoff matches away from home to claim the title.

“We haven’t been consistent enough with our performances to earn anything more than that. We’re grateful to get a home quarter – we were able to achieve that with three weeks to go. Other teams have performed better. If we get beyond next week, earn the right, nothing is going to be easy but we know as well as anyone playing at home doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

In a sign of frustration Chiefs captain Luke Jacobson was fortunate to escape with a penalty sanction in the second half when he charged into a ruck and collided headfirst with two Blues players - halfback Finlay Christie copping the brunt of the brutal collision. Jacobson required several stitches post match.

Yellow cards for Chiefs prop Aidan Ross and Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu, who bagged another double, swung the momentum of the contest.

But it was the Blues who held their destiny in their hands throughout – only to blow it at the death.

Both teams should vastly improve in the finals, as they assemble the first-choice squads, and attempt to peak for the post-season.

For now, though, the Hurricanes are in the box seat.

Blues 31 (Ricky Riccitelli, Hoskins Sotutu 2, Mark Telea, Akira Ioane tries; Harry Plummer 3 cons)

Chiefs 17 (Aidan Ross, Quinn Tupaea, Josh Ioane tries; Damian McKenzie con)

HT: 12-7

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