The Blues put some space between themselves and the chasing pack in the 2007 Super 14. Coming back from trailing at half-time, they beat the Chiefs 18-11 in what can only be described as a brutal arm-wrestle in Hamilton on Saturday.
The Blues now have a seven-point advantage over the second-placed Western Force and third-placed Sharks on the standings, although that gap could narrow slightly later this weekend.
The 2007 Super 14 has been a strange affair.
Without the top All Blacks for the first seven rounds, surprises were always bound to happen. We had those surprises early on in the tournament, but with the likes of the Chiefs able to introduce their star men - Byron Kelleher and Sitiveni Sivivatu, coupled with the return to fitness of Jono Gibbes and Richard Kahui - expect to see even more shocks as we enter the business-end of the Super 14.
Before this match, the Blues had virtually swept all before them, winning six matches from seven and scoring four four-try bonus points in the process. Coach David Nucifora, in his wisdom, resisted the temptation of including all his 'reconditioned' All Blacks in his starting line-up, although he should have revisited that plan when his inspirational skipper Troy Flavell was ruled out of the game well before the kick-off.
In the absence of Flavell, Nucifora opted to start with young Anthony Boric in the Blues second row, leaving All Black star Ali Williams on the bench once again, alongside quicksilver hooker Keven Mealamu. When Mealamu and Williams were eventually introduced into the game they were trailling 8-11 after 50 minutes.
Just six minutes later, after a Mealamu try, the Blues led 13-11 and they never looked back, even if their winning margin was just by seven points.
The match began at a fairly frenetic pace, but it was the Chiefs who were doing all the running en route to a 6-0 lead - after 11 minutes - against a jittery Blues team, no doubt reeling from the loss of the inspirational Flavell.
The Blues, to their credit, managed to fight their way back into contention soon afterwards, but it came from a Chiefs error, with home team hooker Tom Willis - in his 50th Super Rugby match - finding Blues No.6 Jerome Kaino with a misdirected throw, allowing the All Blacks powerhouse to force his way over from close-range, the TMO confirming the score after a long wait.
Blues No.12 Luke McAlister missed the angled conversion, but the Chiefs hit back within five minutes when Blues old boy Tasesa Lavea crashed over for his team's first try of the night, his momentum carrying him over in the tackle after a Simms Davison break from a rolling maul and quick hands down the Chiefs backline, fit-again Kahui doing especially well as the ball did the work for the home team.
At 5-11 down, worse was to follow for the Blues when McAlister limped off after taking a knock to the head in a clash with Chiefs No.7 Marty Holah, with Chiefs old boy Sam Tuitupou replacing the in-form All Blacks playmaker. The hard-running Tuitupou made an immediate impact with his direct style of play, but he was not helped by some inconsistent play from his first five-eighth Isa Nacewa, who dropped some simple passes in the first half, whilst also slotting a penalty in the 35th minute to narrow the Chiefs' lead to just three points - 11-8 - at the half-time break.
The second half saw the Chiefs start strongly once again, until the Blues brought on Mealamu for Derren Witcombe at hooker and Williams for Boric, who struggled to make an impact.
One man who did not struggle to make an impact was Blues No.13 Isaia Toeava, who turned defence into attack just after the 50-minute mark. Toeava came close, with the Blues winning a penalty which they kicked to touch. Mealamu - who looked rusty last week when he came off the bench - found Williams, and the Blues won another penalty straight away when the Chiefs pulled the ensuing maul down. The Blues went to touch again, Mealamu - back at his old home ground - threw in again and he found Greg Rawlinson, before the former peeled away and crashed over for the try, putting his team into the lead for the first time at 13-11.
Nacewa - who missed three shots at goal on the night - was unable to add the two points, but the Blues delivered a hammer-blow just three minutes later when the Chiefs conceded a scrum near their 22 after some mis-communication under a Nacewa high ball from Dwayne Sweeney and Roy Kinikinilau resulted in an attacking Blues scrum. Blues fullback Ben Atiga exploded into the Chiefs 22, Mealamu thundered ahead from the ensuing ruck and his well-timed pass found Doug Howlett on the outside for an 18-11 lead.
Nacewa missed the conversion, but it was a ground-breaking try for many reasons - it handed the Blues an all-important seven-point cushion with just 20 minutes remaining, whilst it gave Howlett his 58th Super Rugby try in his 99th appearance, making him the most prolific try-scorer in the competition's history, taking over from Brumbies star Joe Roff, who achieved his record in just 85 games for the Canberra-based side. Ironically enough, Howlett's first Super Rugby try - a hat-trick - came against the Chiefs back in 1997.
Howlett, however, was not done yet, making a try-saving, front-on tackle on Chiefs tighthead prop Nathan White in the opposite corner just four minutes later, as the Blues were forced to defend their line virtually until the end of the match. The Chiefs - with Sitiveni Sivivatu at the forefront - threw everything at them, but the Blues managed to keep them at bay to record their most pleasing - although unstylish - victory of the season, the final whistle eventually sounding when Greg Rawlinson slapped a Chiefs line-out ball into safety.
"It was an unhappy first half for us, but in the second half our forwards took over and we were more direct from the base at ruck and maul time," said Blues captain-on-the-day Daniel Braid afterwards.
And on the impact of his team's 'super-subs', Mealamu and Williams, Braid added: "We're all fighting for our spots here, but it's good to see the impact from the guys off the bench."
Man of the Match: There were some classy performances from opposition centres Richard Kahui (Chiefs) and Isaia Toeava (Blues), both of whom were outstanding on attack, and also record-breaking Blues speedster Doug Howlett, who continues to shine, despite not being part of the All Blacks Elite squad at present. Replacement Blues hooker Keven Mealamu - one of those 'reconditioned' All Blacks - showed his class when he came on, as did his team-mates Ali Williams (also a replacement) and starting No.6 Jerome Kaino. But our award goes to the Blues' No.4 lock Greg Rawlinson who put himself about for the full 80 minutes as he tried to make up for the loss of squad skipper Troy Flavell.
For the Chiefs:
Pens: Donald 2
For the Blues:
Tries: Kaino, Mealamu, Howlett
Chiefs: 15 Dwayne Sweeney, 14 Roy Kinikinilau, 13 Richard Kahui, 12 Tasesa Lavea, 11Sitiveni Sivivatu, 10 Stephen Donald, 9 Byron Kelleher, 8 Sione Lauaki, 7 Marty Holah, 6 Steven Bates, 5 Keith Robinson, 4 Kristian Ormsby, 3 Nathan White, 2 Tom Willis (c), 1 Simms Davison
Replacements: 16 Aled de Malmanche, 17 Ben Castle, 18 Jono Gibbes, 19 Liam Messam 20 Brendon Leonard, 21 Tane Tu'ipulotu, 22 Lelia Masaga
Blues: 15 Ben Atiga, 14 Doug Howlett, 13 Isaia Toeava, 12 Luke McAlister, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Isa Nacewa, 9 David Gibson, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Daniel Braid (c), 6, Jerome Kaino, 5 Anthony Boric, 4 Greg Rawlinson, 3 John Afoa, 2 Derren Witcombe, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Nick White, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Justin Collins, 20 Steve Devine, 21 Sam Tuitupou, 22 Anthony Tuitavake
Referee: Steve Walsh (New Zealand)
Touch judges: Chris Pollock (New Zealand), Jonathon White (New Zealand)
Television match official: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)
Assessor: Kim Eichmann (New Zealand)