Super Rugby Aotearoa best of the round: Blues win again as Crusaders edge Chiefs
Watch Round 4 of Super Rugby Aotearoa live on Sky Sports Action, with Highlanders vs Crusaders on Saturday from 7.30am and the Chiefs vs Hurricanes on Sunday from 4am
By James Gemmell
Last Updated: 29/06/20 10:14am
There was plenty more to catch our eye as Super Rugby Aotearoa reached full speed, including another thriller at Eden Park.
The Blues made it three wins from three with a narrow win over the Highlanders, while it's three defeats from as many games for Warren Gatland's Chiefs after they came up short against the Crusaders.
James Gemmell was once again casting his eye over both matches and has selected his best moments from round three...
Black in Blue
The form of fly-half Otere Black continues to impress, a year after his move north from the Hurricanes.
Whether it's in spite of, or because of, the Dan Carter effect, Blues fans will not mind. Black's getting time on the ball and making good decisions with it.
The big question for Leon MacDonald and Tana Umaga will be how and when to use Carter, who is expected to be fully match ready following the upcoming bye week.
The Blues' next match is - drum roll please - away to Carter's old side the Crusaders on July 11.
Of course service is crucial for the backline to function, and relative unknown Sam Nock at scrum-half is both receiving and passing on quality ball. It's the speed of transfer at this crucial junction that makes New Zealand sides so lethal at their best.
He had the ball up and off the deck with zip in the first half in particular, speed that helped set up Caleb Clarke's early try, and on defence he was busy as well, tracking back to beat Highlanders wing Jona Nareki (40kg and one 'h' lighter than his famous namesake, but no slower) in a foot race to save a certain try.
Clarke Becomes Superman
It was an emotional day for 21-year-old Blues sensation Caleb Clarke, who lost his grandfather early on matchday. He decided to play in his memory and produced a performance that would've made the whole family proud.
Aside from his early score, Clarke showed his complete range of skills; in the air, chasing kick-offs, and on counter-attack, setting up the try of the match with the vision, sidestep, power and speed to break free from his own half, and the composure to find Rieko Ioane on the inside with a perfectly timed pass.
It must be said, Ioane has shown a new lease of life at centre that must be giving the All Black coaches cause for consideration.
The Blues led 22-10 at half-time and looked in control, but beware any team with rugby genius Tony Brown among the coaches, especially when he goes full Peaky Blinders for the occasion.
Whatever You Can Do, I Can Do Tu'u
Whatever was said in the half-time shed, it worked for the Highlanders.
Led by inspirational No 8 Marino Mikaele Tu'u (yet another multi-talented young loose forward who looks destined for international honours), they wrestled momentum off the Blues and fly-half Mitch Hunt sliced through after just four minutes of the restart to bring the visitors within five.
What Are We Thwaiting For?
No sooner had replacement prop Jeff Thwaites taken the field than he found himself in wide open space, ball in hand, with the line in sight.
So foreign was the position he chose to slide with his feet first, a curious call that at least presented the ball nicely for his support who, sadly for the Highlanders, fluffed the follow-up.
The pressure was still on though, and in the minutes that followed Rieko Ioane was yellow-carded and Shannon Frizell scored. Hunt's conversion took the Highlanders into a two-point lead, and the Blues had a fight on their hands.
Pack, Sack and Crack
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Blues of 2020 and the sides of the last dozen or so years is the resolve of their pack.
Under pressure, both on the pitch and the scoreboard, Patrick Tuipulotu rallied his forward pack around him, and this year he has many willing assistants.
Dalton Papali'i is just one and his second try of the night from a driving lineout just before the hour mark reclaimed the lead, 27-24.
A breathless final 20 minutes ensued, but perhaps the play of the night for the Blues came from Hoskins Sotutu (he of Kiwi, Fijian and English heritage, it has been revealed) with 90 seconds to play.
Hard on defence, he performed just about the hardest legal act on the field: sacking a driving maul, and with it, the Highlanders' chances.
This Blues side are showing all the component parts to have a proper crack at this title, and you get the feeling they feel it now too. Sitting atop the table, three wins from three, they can take a break this week and prepare for the ultimate challenge that is the Crusaders.
Before we head south to Christchurch for game two, a special mention to Joe Marchant, whose spell at the Blues came to an end this weekend.
He has, by all accounts, fully immersed himself in the culture at the club and won many friends and fans as a result.
Although he did not see much game time in the past three weeks, imagine how dealing with Carter, Barrett, Ioane, Umaga and MacDonald (plus many more besides) will shape his future game.
He's a solid bet for an exciting Quins and England future.
Christchurch was particularly grey and miserable for the Crusaders' first home match of Super Rugby Aotearoa, but amid the Sunday drizzle was the crackle of a rivalry described by Crusader and All Black Joe Moody as 'deep-seated hatred'.
It set the tone nicely for a match that was destined to be played out in close quarters, despite the presence of some of New Zealand's most skilful and gifted players across both sides.
Will and Grace
One of those players, Chiefs and All Black centre Anton Lienert-Brown, felt the full force of Cullen Grace, just another young Kiwi loose forward who's all power and potential.
But just as we settled in for an afternoon slog, a piece of aerial wizardry, lightning speed and a smooth finish from a guy called Jordan had us all on our feet.
Sound like the wrong sport? Not quite. Will Jordan, the Crusaders' 22-year-old full-back, started the play with a delightful tap-in to keep a kick in play, and was close at hand a few phases later as Sevu Reece claimed an attacking high ball from the outstretched arms of Damien McKenzie.
Reece was off, as he always is, and Jordan was on his shoulder to accept the pass and glide in for the first half's only try.
Chiefs and All Blacks fans all over the country will have enjoyed seeing the return of newly-appointed New Zealand captain Sam Cane, although he could have been on a Dorset beach for all the rubbish he was having to tidy up.
Blindside mate Lachlan Boshier would have appreciated Cane's help with a troublesome boot though.
Not bad when the national captain steps in to help you untie a double knot.
The 10-time Super Rugby champions showed their nous and know-how on a difficult afternoon to stretch to 18-3 in the second half.
As Chiefs players appealed to the referee for a perceived infringement, it was Reece and Jordan again who combined, this time with a quick lineout. Jordan scooted in for try two of the night.
Ever the scrappers (perhaps that's what Moody hates so much about them), the Chiefs fought back with a Sean Wainui try and Damien McKenzie penalty, but the Crusaders had done enough to seal their second win, and with it second place on the table after week three.