The Hurricanes continued their surge towards the Vodacom Super Rugby semi-finals with a 29-5 win over the Blues in Auckland on Saturday. BRENTON CHELIN reports.
The bonus-point victory means the Hurricanes now have an insurmountable lead at the top of the log, assuring them of a home semi-final and a probable home final.
It was always going to be an uphill challenge for the Blues, who have been desperately unlucky with injuries in recent weeks and went into the match without the likes of Jerome Kaino, Patrick Tuipulotu and Steven Luatua.
The Canes, already without Beauden Barrett, were forced into a reshuffle just prior to kick-off, with Otere Black handed a debut at flyhalf. The 20-year-old never looked out of place, putting in an assured performance in treacherous conditions in Auckland.
However, it was the Canes' forwards that laid the platform for a comprehensive victory. They bullied their counterparts at the breakdown and at the collisions, allowing them to open up a healthy 17-point lead at half-time.
The Canes dominated territory and possession during the opening stanza, but it wasn't until the final couple minutes of the half that they made their dominance count.
Leading just 3-0 with half-time nearing, stand-in captain Jeremy Thrush opted to kick for the corner to set up a rolling maul. The Blues managed to sack the initial drive but the Hurricanes recycled the ball and, after taking it through a couple phases, the Blues defence eventually gave way with Chris Eves crashing over from close range.
TJ Perenara was the next to capitalise on the Hurricanes' dominance, sneaking over for his eighth try of the season off the final play of the half. It was difficult to take for the Blues, who had been right in the match up until that point.
The Blues did see more of the ball during the second stanza, but the Hurricanes' defence stood firm as it has done all season. The hosts did finally manage to get on the scoreboard as Matt Vaega crashed over after some good work from George Moala, after Dane Coles had extended the Hurricanes' lead.
However, it was the visitors who would have the last say, as a fine finish from Nehe Milner-Skudder wrapped up the bonus point for the Canes, who continue their march towards a first Super Rugby title.
Blues – Try: Matt Vaega.
Hurricanes – Tries: Chris Eves, TJ Perenara, Dane Coles, Nehe Milner-Skudder. Conversions: Otere Black (3). Penalty: Black
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Francis Saili, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Brendon O'Connor, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Angus Ta’avao, 18 Nic Mayhew, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Joe Edwards, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Simon Hickey, 23 Matt Vaega.
Hurricanes – 15 James Marshall, 14 Nehe Milner-Skudder, 13 Rey Lee-Lo, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Otere Black, 9 TJ Perenara, 8 Victor Vito, 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Blade Thomson, 5 James Broadhurst, 4 Jeremy Thrush (c), 3 Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Chris Eves.
Subs: 16 Motu Matu'u, 17 Ben May, 18 Tolu Fahamokioa, 19 Callum Gibbins, 20 Brad Shields, 21 Chris Smylie, 22 Cory Jane, 23 Willis Halaholo.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images