WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The Auckland-based Blues set up an all-Kiwi final against the Christchurch-based Crusaders by hanging on under immense pressure to beat the ACT Brumbies 20-19 on Saturday in the second semifinal of Super Rugby Pacific.
The Blues extended a club-record winning streak to 15 games to earn the right to host next weekend’s final at Auckland’s Eden Park. The Crusaders reached the final with 20-7 win Friday over the Hamilton-based Chiefs.
The Blues led 20-7 after a dominant first half Saturday but the Brumbies rallied with two tries from lineout drives to replacement hooker Lachlan Lonergan to come within a point of the Blues after 76 minutes.
Twice reduced to 14 men by yellow cards in the second half, the Blues seemed to be just hanging on at the end.
The Brumbies had a late possession and the chance to become the first Australian team to win a Super Rugby playoffs match in New Zealand. But flyhalf Noah Lolesio attempted a long-range dropped goal as the clock ticked down and his kick was charged down by All Blacks prop Ofa Tuungafasi, coming off the bench for the Blues.
“I’ve got a lot of trust in the lads but you’ve got to give it to the Brumbies, they could have run away with that one,” Blues captain Beauden Barrett said.
Barrett said Tuungafasi’s charge-down was a “huge” moment in the game and season.
"Those are the moments you have to be alive for and look for,” he said. “We needed the big fella to stand up at that moment.”
On a wet night in Auckland, the Blues won the first-half kicking game against a Brumbies team that counts that as a strength. The Blues contested kicks in the air better than the Brumbies, returned kicks more directly and put their own kicks in play more accurately to control that aspect of the match.
A series of penalties, including from scrums where the Brumbies buckled on the loosehead side, meant the Brumbies lost control of the pace of the match and the Blues lifted the tempo and scored tries out of counter-attack to lead 20-7 at halftime.
Flyhalf Barrett exercised a major influence on the game. His use of high and recoverable kicks and his ability to contest those among Brumbies defenders bent the match in the Blues’ favor in the second quarter. He also worked as the pivot of the attack, using long passes or picking up runners to stretch the defense.
The Blues had too many dangerous runners for the Brumbies to easily contain. Fullback Stephen Perofeta, Barrett, center Rieko Ioane and wingers A.J. Lam and Mark Telea brought the ball strongly out of defense. Lock Tom Robinson carried it in midfield and backrower Hoskins Sotutu was strong close to the line.
The Brumbies scored the first try of the match through Auckland-born winger Irae Simone after only three minutes. From an attacking scrum Lolesio handed a short ball to Simone who cut through the Auckland defense and made Lolesio’s conversion a formality.
Perofeta reduced the lead with two penalties and then sparked the Blues’ first try, running back a Brumbies kick from deep in his own half. He linked with Robinson and Ioane and when play came close the goalline, Sotutu drove over from the breakdown.
The Blues scored in similar circumstances in the 34th minute, bringing the ball out of defense through Perofeta, Ioane, Lam and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Scrumhalf Finlay Christie passed to Barrett and his offload put Telea over.
The Brumbies started the second half knowing they had to score first to have any chance of winning. It took them 18 minutes but they finally managed to nail one of their trademark lineout drives through Lonergan while Blues hooker Kurt Eklund was in the bin for a tip tackle.
Lonergan scored again in the 76th minute after Blues backrower Adrian Choat was yellow carded for a high tackle.
The final minutes to the match were thrilling and the climax came when Tuungafasi reached out a big hand to palm down Lolesio’s dropped goal.
“We showed a lot of heart in the second half and gave ourselves the opportunity to win that game,” Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa said. “But they just iced it at the end.”
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