Red carded and rattled: Blues stave off Moana Pasifika fightback

Liam Napier, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 30 Mar 2022, 11:29am

Red carded and rattled: Blues stave off Moana Pasifika fightback

Liam Napier, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 30 Mar 2022, 11:29am

Moana Pasifika 19 
Blues 32 

Four days on from their historic golden point Super Rugby success, Moana Pasifika delivered another stirring display to seriously rattle the Blues in the first edition of the cross-town rivalry. 

After stunning the Hurricanes at Mt Smart Stadium last Friday night, Moana Pasifika rolled out a completely revamped team featuring 13 debutants for the Blues following multiple late game-day changes due to further Covid cases. 

Despite those widespread alterations, Moana's spirit and belief were identical. Their depth performed admirably, too. And their first genuine crowd responded with a buoyant atmosphere to ride their every hit, carry, try. 

The Blues, arriving with one starter from the team that defeated the Highlanders in Dunedin last Saturday, were in control as they led 19-0 late in the first half before Moana Pasifika launched their now infamous comeback. 

Moana Pasifika hooker Luteru Tolai nabbed a try just before the break – one of five in the match from lineout drives - to spark the crowd into life, and the home side emerged from the sheds breathing fire for the second half. 

Solomona Kata, playing on the ground he featured regularly for the Warriors, was held up over the line. Minutes later prop Abraham Pole scored on debut to inspire a surge in belief. Had Tolai not been denied his brace for a double movement, the result could well have been different. 

With the Blues firmly on the backfoot All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala opened the door further for Moana after copping a red card for his shoulder to the head clean out in the 58th minute. 

When Moana wing Tomasi Alosio scored a brilliant try from Lincoln McClutchie's cross-field kick, Aaron Mauger's men closed to 24-19 in the final quarter. Despite their one man advantage, this time Moana could not land the killer blow but they gave the Blues the standing count. 

"There were some tense moments, that's for sure," Blues coach Leon MacDonald said. "A red card put us under more pressure. We were able to get down the other end and execute and turn the game. It was always going to be close. We got what we thought we'd get." 

In those tense closing stages Moana botched a lineout 10 minutes out from the Blues line; All Blacks halfback Finlay Christie snuck over in an influential effort from the bench and Stephen Perofeta converted a penalty to save the Blues' blushes. 

While they couldn't find the composure to close out this match, Moana outscored the Blues in the second half and again proved they are here to challenge, here for the fight. 

"They rattled the Crusaders in the early rounds; the Chiefs were able to pull away and then with the Hurricanes and now us. No one has been spared by Moana," MacDonald said. "They're a great team, and I know everyone is giving them full respect because when they get their tails up they're extremely hard to stop. They belong in this comp and they bring their own flavour." 

In many respects this was not a true reflection of the Blues. The three-day turnaround forced MacDonald to hand his wider squad game time, and they did just enough to escape with a five-tries-to-three victory. 

It was a close run thing, though, that will offer invaluable lessons to many green prospects. 

"We'll have to learn a quick lesson because we're going to do it all again in a couple of days so hopefully we're quick learners." 

There were familiar themes for Moana Pasifika in the first half with their discipline putting them on the backfoot and defence keeping them in the contest. 

Without captain Sekope Kepu, the scrum was Moana's biggest issue with Alex Hodgman gaining several penalties against his opposite, Joe Apikotoa. 

Moana Pasifika spent much of the first spell kicking from their half and picking out the Blues back three. There was a reluctance to kick the ball out, with Hawke's Bay playmaker McClutchie seemingly determined to avoid the sideline. 

These tactics gave dangerous Blues fullback Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepens and Talea ample opportunity to counter attack. Moana's kick chase line was fractured at times but they largely held firm. 

The Blues' three first half tries came through pure weight of possession and pressure. Tamati Tua scored first after a well-placed kick from Tanielu Tele'a and former Hurricanes hooker Ricky Riccitelli claimed a double from close range. 

MacDonald's men move to 4-1 for the season and will now welcome back their regular starters for the return match against Moana Pasifika at Eden Park on Saturday. 

That shapes as a vastly different prospect for Moana but, given their spirit thus far, another competitive performance appears well within their capabilities. 

At this juncture Moana Pasifika coach Aaron Mauger has every reason to beam with pride. 

"We talked about small wins last week that led to an ultimate outcome and there were so many more to celebrate tonight," Mauger said. "We were close. It's a good feeling to be competing with the best teams in this competition. 

"We had a few more challenges over the last 48 hours with a few more Covid cases coming in and lots of changes – meeting some guys for the first time this morning who came on the bench. There's been plenty of deep breaths and laughing it off to focus forward." 

Moana Pasifika 19 (Luteru Tolai, Abraham Pole, Tomasi Alosio tries, D'Angelo Leuila con, Lincoln McClutchie con) 

Blues 32 (Tamati Tua, Ricky Riccitelli 2, Luke Romano, Finlay Christie tries, Stephen Perofeta 2 con, pen) 

HT: 5-19