The Blues beat the Waratahs 34-28 in Auckland on Friday to all but rule the Sydney-based team out of the playoff race. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Tana Umaga should be a relatively happy coach. The Blues have made progress over the course of Umaga's first season at the helm. On Friday, they ended their 2016 campaign with a convincing win against the Waratahs, the 2014 Super Rugby champions.
The Waratahs have regressed since winning the title two years ago. In 2016, they have battled against the better New Zealand and South African teams, and even against a few of the less established sides. This was evident in the final fixture of the conference stage, where they went down to the team ranked fifth in the New Zealand conference.
Daryl Gibson's side did enough to obtain a losing bonus point in this contest. They have moved to the top of the Australian conference, and are in a position to qualify for the playoffs.
However, that should all change on Saturday. The Brumbies are only one log point behind the Waratahs. All they need from their final fixture against the Force in Canberra on Saturday is a losing bonus point. If the Brumbies and Waratahs finish the regular season on the same number of log points, the former will advance due to their superior number of wins.
The Blues won't feature in the playoffs. They will take some confidence into next season, though, after this performance against the Waratahs.
The hosts showed as much passion and intensity on defence as they did intent on attack. They flew up into the faces of the Waratahs ball-carriers. They competed fiercely at the breakdowns, and forced some key turnovers.
Where the Blues did battle was at the scrum. The hosts conceded a series of penalties in the red zone, and after 23 minutes, referee Mike Fraser decided to award the Waratahs a penalty try under the posts.
The Blues hit back in emphatic fashion, handling the ball brilliantly to free up lock Patrick Tuipulotu on the left flank. They added a second to their tally when Fraser awarded a penalty try after the Waratahs had sacked the maul illegally.
The Waratahs attempted to regain the lead in the dying minutes of the first half. The Blues defence scrambled well, and ensured that the home team led 12-7 at the break.
Incredibly, Fraser awarded a third penalty try shortly after half-time. The Waratahs scrum was again rewarded for its dominance, and Bernard Foley added the extras that took the visitors into the lead.
But again, the Waratahs defence lapsed and Piers Francis raced through to score. Francis nailed the conversion, as well as a subsequent penalty attempt, to steer his team into a commanding eight-point lead.
Israel Folau then provided the Waratahs with some hope with a powerful run that culminated in a try. That score was cancelled four minutes later when Nanai collected a loose ball and crossed the tryline. Francis restored the eight-point advantage.
The Waratahs continued to press, and scored through Angus Ta'avao in the 72nd minute. Foley's conversion brought the visitors within one point of the hosts.
The Blues, however, ensured that the remaining minutes were played deep in Waratahs territory. George Moala breached the Waratahs defence to put the result beyond doubt.
Fortune did favour the Waratahs in that Francis missed the conversion from right out in front. The miss didn't cost the Blues the game, but it did ensure that the Waratahs came away with a losing bonus point and kept their slim playoff hopes alive.
Blues – Tries: Patrick Tuipulotu, penalty try, Piers Francis, Melani Nanai, George Moala. Conversions: Francis (3). Penalty: Francis.
Waratahs – Tries: Penalty try (2), Israel Folau, Angus Ta'avoa. Conversions: Bernard Foley (4).
Blues – 15 Melani Nanai, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Male Sa’u, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Kara Pryor, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Scott Scrafton, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 George Moala, 23 Lolagi Visinia.
Waratahs – 15 Andrew Kellaway, 14 Reece Robinson, 13 Israel Folau, 12 Rob Horne, 11 Matt Carraro, 10 Bernard Foley, 9 Nick Phipps, 8 Dave Dennis, 7 Michael Hooper (c), 6 Jack Dempsey, 5 Will Skelton, 4 Dean Mumm, 3 Tom Robertson, 2 Tatafu Polota-Nau, 1 Paddy Ryan.
Subs: 16 Hugh Roach, 17 Jeremy Tilse, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Sam Lousi, 20 Wycliff Palu, 21 Matt Lucas, 22 David Horwitz, 23 Jim Stewart.
Photo: Phil Walter/ Getty Images