The Blues survived a courageous Rebels fightback to win 36-30 at Eden Park on Saturday, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
The bottom-placed team in the New Zealand conference looked set to claim a convincing bonus-point victory when they scored their sixth try in the 53rd minute to lead 36-18. But the Australian conference leaders hit back with two tries in three minutes to set up a thrilling finish.
With two minutes to go, the Rebels were awarded a penalty and kicked for the corner. From the lineout they set up a driving maul and looked certain to score until referee Craig Joubert penalised them for obstruction. The Blues were able to clear, win the lineout and then kick the ball out.
Ultimately, it was the Rebels' defence that cost them the game in Auckland. They missed 26 tackles, according to SARugbymag.co.za's Opta-powered stats, while the Blues were able to make 26 clean breaks.
It was the Rebels who opened the scoring in this match with a third-minute try that came from a Blues' blunder. Jack Debreczeni kicked through the hosts' defence, and while James Parsons got to the ball first, he tried to keep it in-field by throwing a high-risk pass that failed to find Ihaia West. Reece Hodge collected the loose ball to score an unconverted try.
West's first penalty attempt came off the upright, before Debreczeni slotted his first to extend his side's lead.
But the Blues came storming back with three tries in nine minutes. Parsons made up for his earlier mistake when he spun out of the tackle to score, and another good attack was finished off when Jerome Kaino went over from close range. The hosts then caught the Rebels unaware by going to the front of a lineout and setting up a driving maul that resulted in a try to Charlie Faumuina. While West missed two of the conversions, his side suddenly had a 17-8 lead after 23 minutes.
Debreczeni clawed three points back for the Rebels, but they failed to collect the Blues' short restart. Steven Luatua easily regained possession, and while Patrick Tuipulotu was brought down after a strong run, West was at hand to score his team's fourth try.
The Rebels finished the half strongly, kicking a scrum penalty to touch and setting up a driving maul from which Jordy Reid scored to make it 24-18.
But all that good work was undone early in the second half when Nic Stirzaker's pass flew high over Hodge's head. The Blues went wide from the resultant 5m scrum with Tevita Li dotting down in the left-hand corner. Lolagi Visinia then scored his side's sixth try when he cut back inside past four defenders.
Both teams turned to their bench at the end of the third quarter, and it was replacement Colby Fainga'a who scored the Rebels' third try with 15 minutes over to narrow the gap to 13.
There was then a 14-point turnaround when Li broke through the Rebels' defence, taking play from the opposition 10m line to within 6m of the tryline. Patrick Tuipulotu was unable to collect the winger's offload with Sefu Naivalu sprinting 95m to score at the other end.
Piers Francis had an opportunity to give the Blues a nine-point cushion with seven minutes to play, but his penalty attempt went wide.
That meant the Rebels needed a converted try to snatch victory, and while they came close, the Blues were able to hang on.
Blues – Tries: James Parsons, Jerome Kaino, Charlie Faumuina, Steven Luatua, Tevita Li, Lolagi Visinia. Conversion: Ihaia West (2), Piers Francis.
Rebels – Tries: Reece Hodge, Jordy Reid, Colby Fainga'a, Sefu Naivalu. Conversions: Jack Debreczeni (2). Penalties: Debreczeni (2).
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Rieko Ioane, 13 George Moala, 12 Piers Francis, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Tanerau Latimer, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Matt Duffie.
Rebels – 15 Johan Placid, 14 Sefu Naivalu, 13 Reece Hodge, 12 Tamati Ellison, 11 Cam Crawford, 10 Jack Debreczeni, 9 Nic Stirzaker (c), 8 Adam Thomson, 7 Sean McMahon, 6 Jordy Reid, 5 Sam Jeffries, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Jamie Hagan, 2 James Hanson, 1 Toby Smith.
Subs: 16 Pat Leafa, 17 Cruze Ah Nau, 18 Tim Metcher, 19 Culum Retallick, 20 Colby Fainga'a, 21 Ben Meehan, 22 Kotaro Matsushima, 23 Sione Tuipulotu.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images