8 Jun, 2024 09:04 AM4 mins to read

Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu leaves the field with an injury. Photo / Photosport

Blues vs Drua - Figure 1
Photo New Zealand Herald

Blues 36

Drua 5

By Liam Napier at Eden Park

Rugby doesn’t always go to script. Yet the Blues quarter-final procession was as predictable as Auckland traffic congestion.

Their commanding yet patchy win could come at a cost, though, with inspirational captain Patrick Tuipulotu suffering a potentially serious knee injury.

The gulf in quality between Super Rugby Pacific’s second and seventh-ranked qualifiers was laid bare at Eden Park on Saturday night as the Blues smothered and squeezed the Fijian Drua into submission.

Booking their third straight semifinal appearance, their maiden under Vern Cotter, the Blues produced a dominant but far from polished performance to largely shut out the Drua.

With a six-day turnaround before hosting next Friday’s semifinal against the Brumbies, though, there will be concerns for Tuipulotu after he departed midway through the first half with a knee injury.

While rookie lock James Thompson stepped up, and Sam Darry is in line to return next week, Tuipulotu has produced inspirational, perhaps career-best, form for the Blues this year. His likely absence next week would, therefore, be a major loss – and could yet carry further implications in an area the All Blacks depth is most vulnerable in the post-Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock era.

On that front, All Blacks coach Scott Robertson will be nervous.

Blues vs Drua - Figure 2
Photo New Zealand Herald

“It’s too early to say,” Blues coach Vern Cotter said of Tuipulotu’s prognosis, noting Akira Ioane had a calf concern too. “It will be assessed again tomorrow morning and then we will have a clearer idea on how he’s come through the night. There’s a few bumps and bruises.”

Dalton Papali’i led the charge on both sides of the ball for the Blues and Ricky Riccitelli was prominent again. Harry Plummer calmly pulled the strings from first receiver too. The Blues scrum did a number on the Drua to set the tone for their dominance. With punishing defence, the Blues regularly generated turnovers but their handling and execution often let them down.

Perennially pinned inside their half, the Dura were pressured into frequent penalties (on the wrong side of a 14-7 count) to compound their struggles.

With plugs to the corners, slotting sideline conversions, offloads, an assist for the first of Caleb Clarke’s brace on the edge and cross-field kicks, Plummer had the ball on a string to guide the Blues to an insurmountable 22-0 halftime lead.

By that point, it was game over.

Dalton Papali'i scores the opening try against the Fijian Drua. Photo / Photosport

The Drua, now winless in their last 16 games away from home comforts, including all eight this season, mounted a spirited second-half comeback.

Selestino Ravutaumada’s sole strike for the visitors two minutes after the break evoked the loudest reaction of the night from a hefty and boisterous Fijian contingent among the 18,201 crowd.

Blues vs Drua - Figure 3
Photo New Zealand Herald

While they significantly improved their first-half performance the Drua were never going to run down the Blues.

Reaching the post-season marks a successful season for the Drua but, in years to come, they must somehow, some way, address their road woes to prove a genuine threat.

The Blues’s 11th win from their last 12 games propels them into hosting next Friday’s first semifinal against the Brumbies after they sealed their final four spot thanks to a dominant second half in their 32-16 win over the Highlanders in Canberra.

The Hurricanes’ 47-20 quarter-final victory over the Rebels assures they earn an extra day’s rest before they welcome the Chiefs to the capital on Saturday.

The Blues will start heavy favourites against the Brumbies after winning their last 14 games at Eden Park. The Crusaders are the only team to trump the Blues at home in the last four years.

Cotter will, though, not be satisfied with his side’s error-riddled second-half performance.

With the result seized the Blues were again guilty of not putting their foot on the throat and lacking a ruthless edge to allow the Drua back into the contest.

As stand in skipper Papali’i noted, the Blues must improve to survive from here.

“Every game now is do or die. There were moments in this game we executed but there were moments we got a bit complacent and that’s the killer in finals footy. Next week going into that we have to lift,”Papali’i said.

“You’ve got to win moment after moment. If we play like we did tonight it will be a hard day at the office next week. We can take a lot of positives from what we did today. Our set piece was dominant and the first 40 we were happy with but we feel asleep in a few moments in the second half.”

Blues 36 (Dalton Papali’i, Finlay Christie, Caleb Clarke 2, Kurt Eklund tries; Harry Plummer 3 cons, pen, Stephen Perofeta con)

Drua 5 (Selestino Ravutaumada try)

HT: 22-0

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