The Blues' Super 14 play-off hopes are still alive for the time being after they secured a clinical 40-15 win over the Highlanders at Carisbrook on Saturday.
Nick Evans stole the show in the first half, landing three penalties before dotting down two tries to give his team the decisive edge, and the bonus point was secured by Anthony Tuitavake in the second half after a brief 15-minute lapse in the Blues' concentration.
The game really wasn't much to write home about. The Highlanders' season ended a month ago and they played like it. The Blues rolled back the weeks and delivered an excellent display of early control and well-chosen moments of open rugby in damp conditions, making the result a formality.
David Nucifora was grim-faced at half-time despite his team's 26-3 lead, which may have seemed odd, but he was surely reflecting on why his team had not been doing this for the past six weeks as well as in the first three weeks of the tournament, and now.
The Blues had nearly 80 per cent of the first half territory, much as the Hurricanes had done against the Force on Friday, but in contrast to the Hurricanes they made it count. They were slightly helped by the strict refereeing of Chris Pollock who awarded more penalties than free-kicks in the opening quarter, includng several for offside lines at the tackle.
There was also a disallowed try for Anthony Tuitavake, whose inside foot just slid over the touchline before he got the ball down.
Evans converted three of the penalties before Mike Delany pulled one back, and Delany could have changed the course of the game as well. He made the Highlanders' lone clean break of the half, but from the ensuing ruck Jimmy Cowan's pass to Fetu'u Vainikolo was too flat to be effective.
The Blues found it tough to break completely through the home side's defence. Two good offloading moves yielded good yardage, but the finesse was missing - Anthony Boric should hang his head in shame for a crazy forced offload - and the cover was good.
So they turned to kicks, and it worked. First Evans followed up his own grubber down the left to squeeze in at the corner, and then he latched onto a similar kick from Isa Nacewa. A cheeky flip from him kept the ball alive, John Afoa bruised forward, giving Evans the time to take the ball on the short side and slide home. This time he converted from the touchline, and it was 21-3.
The Blues forwards were in the ascendancy in the tight now as well, and a mighty scrum just before the break - coupled with the new 5m of space afforded the attack at scrum-time by one of the few effective new laws - saw Rudi Wulf in at that same left-hand corner after a simple short-side move. Evans missed the kick again, so it was 26-3 at half-time. Only the bonus point to come, right?
Wrong. The Highlanders came out full of running after the break, and scored two scintillating tries.
First a quick free-kick from Cowan gave Leota space to step through, and Bancroft finished the move off in the right-hand corner, with Delany converting.
Then a blustering break from Craig Newby again saw Leota and Bancroft combining, before Cowan's clever kick accross the field was seized upon with unbridled glee by Adam Thomson. Now it was 26-15, and a cloud of tension formed over the Blues' pep talk behind the poles.
But it was just the dose of ammonia the Blues needed. Within five minutes they had the bonus point try and the win wrapped up, with Tuitavake switching off Nacewa to dance over. Evans' conversion was his last act of a stellar night - the NZRU ought to be sulking.
David Smith rounded off the scoring in the final minute with an intercept try. With the Hurricanes snaffling second spot after their win yesterday, there's going to be a lot at stake at Eden Park next week if further results go the Blues' way.
Man of the match: Nick Evans. He was flawless.
Moment of the match: That try by Adam Thomson. four passes over 60 metres, and then an inch-perfect cross-field kick, and finished off with a dive worthy of some of the finest professional soccer players.
Villain of the match: We are wondering if it is worth continuing this section...
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Bancroft, Thomson
For the Blues:
Tries: Evans 2, Wulf, Tuitavake, Smith
Cons: Evans 2, Atiga
Pens: Evans 3
Highlanders: 15 Paul Williams, 14 Glen Horton, 13 Aaron Bancroft, 12 Johnny Leota, 11 Fetu'u Vainikolo, 10 Mike Delany, 9 Jimmy Cowan; 8 Craig Newby (c), 7 Alando Soakai, 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Hoani MacDonald, 3 Clint Newland, 2 Jason MacDonald, 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 David Hall, 17 Chris King, 18 Isaac Ross, 19 Steven Setephano, 20 Toby Morland, 21 Daniel Bowden, 22 Niva Ta'auso.
Blues: 15 Nick Evans, 14 David Smith, 13 Anthony Tuitavake, 12 Benson Stanley, 11 Rudi Wulf, 10 Isa Nacewa, 9 Taniela Moa, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Daniel Braid, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Troy Flavell (captain)/Kurtis Haiu, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 John Afoa, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Tony Woodcock/Nick White.
Replacements: 16 Nick White/Tom McCartney, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Kurtis Haiu/Bryn Evans, 19 Justin Collins, 20 Danny Lee, 21 Isaia Toeava, 22 Ben Atiga.
Referee: Chris Pollock (New Zealand)
Touch judges: Kelvin Deaker (New Zealand), Keith Brown (New Zealand)
Television match official: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
Assessor: Stuart Beissel (New Zealand)