Reds Down Blues In Auckland
The Reds and Blues scraped and wrestled their way through 80 minutes at Eden Park on Friday with the reigning champions eking out a 23-11 win.
The game began as a scrap, with the Reds in the ascendancy earlier before the Blues fought their way into some space and rhythm late in the first forty minutes.
The second forty minutes was closer, but the Reds’ composure and execution put paid to the Blues’ manful efforts to claw their way back into the game.
The Reds were on the offensive from the beginning, with Dom Shipperley tapping the restart back to Will Genia who got the ball free and to his flyhalf Ben Lucas, who chipped across field to Rob Simmons on the wing.
The breakdown happened in the blink of an eye with Digby Ioane scoring the first try of the game 60 seconds in.
The ball was grounded wide, right at the corner post, giving inside centre and goal-kicker Mike Harris and impossible angle on the conversion, leaving the score at 5-0 to the visitors.
The second score of the game followed shortly after. Fullback Luke Morahan swooped on a ball that went wide through the hands of Genia and Harris. He dummied left and shot through a gap left by Blues fullback Hadleigh Parkes to dot down.
Harris set his tee for a second shot, which was in a similar position to his first, but successfully converted the try for a 12-0 lead in the seventh minute.
The Blues won their first penalty of the match when the Reds failed to roll away in the tackle. The 12th-minute penalty gave the hosts their first foray into their attacking 22.
It was an opportunity that went begging when Blues hooker Tom McCartney couldn’t get the ball in straight.
The Blues slowly eked their way back into the game, scrambling desperately. Blues centre Rene Ranger began to work himself into the game, working through the midfield and towards the right side of the ground.
Grant Anscombe combined with him to take the ball deeper. When the Reds tackled Peter Saili without the ball in the 23rd-minute, the Blues automatically went for the lineout.
Tom McCartney finally got his lineout throw right and the Blues set their maul and drove hard for the goal line. Reds loose forward Scott Higginbotham got confused in the rolling maul and was almost offside when Luke Braid peeled off the back of the maul and dived over for the Blues to peg back the lead to 12-5 in the 26th-minute.
The 29th-minute saw Blues winger Rudi Wulf set free. He toed ahead and chased beautifully and set the tone for the next ten minutes. His chase bundled the Reds into touch.
Their lineout set an attacking phase that pressed the Reds against their goal line. Squeezing the Reds with all their might, they drew a penalty advantage and pressed even harder until referee Craig Joubert called the ball back. Without hesitation, Anscombe took a penalty shot that brought the Blues three points closer, 12-8.
Ma’a Nonu was getting plenty of inside ball and was making it count with some powerful carries. He was isolated in the ruck and failed to release the ball as the Reds loose forwards swarmed him.
Harris set himself for a long-range shot in the 35th-minute and kicked true to create some breathing space on the score board, 15-8.
The final minutes of the first half belonged to the Blues, with an innovative cross-field kick from the base of the scrum deep in their own half.
The ploy worked, with the ball bouncing up to the charging Blues outside backs, which gave them another trip inside the Reds defensive area that ended with the half time siren.
The Reds began the second half on the back foot, but created an attacking opportunity from superb counter-rucking and set themselves for a big effort.
The phase play worked into the goal-mouth. Genia sighted an overlap to the right, and lofted a cut-out ball to Shipperley who scored in the 43rd-minute.
It was a wide grounding that presented a challenge Harris couldn’t overcome, missing the conversion from the right touchline and leaving the score at 20-8 for the Reds.
The Blues managed to string some offensive phases together with Piri Weepu creating some opportunities with good second efforts in general play and when play broke down.
They lured the Reds into a breakdown penalty that Anscombe duly kicked from short range to nudge the Blues’ score into double figures in the 56th-minute (20-11).
George Moala, the Blues right winger, was injecting himself with some up-and-in runs. It was his endeavour that got the Blues into prime position, pressuring the Reds into another defensive error in the 60th-minute. Anscombe had a long-range shot that didn’t make the distance.
The Blues took a rare attacking opportunity when Benson Stanley took the ball strongly into Reds territory. From the breakdown, Weepu kicked the ball ahead and the try was on until Genia fell back to cover the last line and grounded the ball that had tumbled into the in-goal.
The Reds looked like driving a maul from a lineout, looking for a fourth try and a bonus point. When the maul stuttered metres from the goal line, referee Joubert called back a penalty advantage giving Harris another shot at goal, from which he duly collected three more points and a 23-11 lead.
The Blues were better for the presence of Weepu, who gave them direction and opportunities with his distribution. The All Black scrumhalf played 70 minutes and probably earned another week in the run-on side.
The Reds were patchy, but their class shone through at key moments. They were patient, taking the opportunities but managed to conjure moments that made the difference between the two sides.
As predicted the Reds dominated at the breakdown with Reds captain James Horwill confirming they’d effectively fielded two openside flankers to ensure consistent safe first use of the ball.
SARugby.com Man of the Match: Will Genia, not for being exceptional but for his consistency, reliable ball to his outside backs and his cover defence that saved the Reds the game when it counted.
Blues - Tries: Luke Braid. Penalties: Gareth Anscombe (2).
Reds - Tries: Digby Ioane, Luke Morahan, Dom Shipperley. Conversions: Mike Harris. Penalties: Harris (2).