Contenders or pretenders? The jury remains out on the Blues in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman after a second straight bonus-point victory that was nowhere near as impressive as their opening one.
Lean MacDonald’s side did the business in the end against the woeful, winless Waratahs, eventually kicking clear to a 48-21 victory behind a magnificent hat-trick from wing Bryce Heem that banked the full complement of points for the second week on the trot. They are now 2-0 for the new competition, with 10 points.
Sure tougher stuff is to come, with the Brumbies, Reds and Force ahead, and it’s looking for all money as though a clean-sweep might be required to earn a spot in the final as the Kiwi teams continue to dominate.
But after their inconsistent Aotearoa competition, the Blues have at gone back to back with a degree of swagger (they opened with a 50-3 humbling of the Rebels) that has them right where they need to be after two rounds.
On the other hand, they were less fluent, less efficient this week, and they took some time to break down the resistance from a game, if fallible, Waratahs outfit who have now lost a record 10 straight Super Rugby matches this year. They were better in the second half, and good enough to pounce on the opportunities dished up by their generous opponents, but the review will still show plenty of areas where they need to get better.
Wing Bryce Heem was outstanding for the Blues as he continues this late-career resurgence back on home soil. His hat-trick of tries was a fitting reward for a busy match in which he showcased his mix of power, speed and skill, running for 181 metres all told. Young fullback Zarn Sullivan also continued to impress in just his third outing at this level while halfback Finlay Christie was sharp again. Rieko Ioane had one or two misfires, but collected one fine try and gobbled up 115 metres with ball in hand.
READ MORE: Force outclassed as Aussie drought continues
READ MORE: Australia’s $2.5 billion Rugby World Cup bid
Gordon reads it like a book
Up front the home scrum was again dominant, hooker Kurt Eklund strong, lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti steady and captain Tom Robinson industrious. Akira Ioane had his moments too, but might have made more of his rare start at No 8.
The Waratahs played better than their abysmal record suggests, with busy loosehed prop Angus Bell and combative halfback Jake Gordon the best of the visiting crop. They have a lot to do to arrest this decline, but there at least seems to be some fighting spirit in their ranks.
It was anything but a convincing first 40 minutes from the Blues who had been charged with showing some consistency in the wake of their impressive opening effort in Melbourne a week ago.
Instead, MacDonald’s men spluttered and stuttered their way through the first half against a side riding a nine-match losing streak in 2021. They scored three tries, conceded two and were anything but impressive as they took a 22-14 lead into the sheds that left a lot to be desired.
Big prop burns the Blues
Heem, arguably the most impressive player on the paddock through the opening 40, scored the first try and created the second for the Blues as they cruised to a 15-0 lead inside the first half-hour. The resurgent wing (with 98 first-half running metres) showed nice individual skill to dot down in the eighth minute, then put skipper Robinson in 19 minutes later when he very much made the most of a charge-down deflection that fell right into his hands.
But the Blues had been somewhat messy between those scores, blowing one cast-iron chance when TJ Faiane banged a crosskick into touch, and then saw the visitors run in two quick tries in three minutes to charge back into the contest, at 15-14. Prop Bell notched the first with an all too easy run off a short ball from 22 metres out, and halfback Gordon the second from an intercept just the other side of halfway.
The Blues did steady before the break, putting hooker Eklund across for his fifth try of the year, via the lineout drive, but would have been given a staunch message at the break about the need to knuckle down and take care of basics.
The improvement did come in the third quarter, with an early Rieko Ioane seven-pointer, when he dashed away from a ruck nearly 40m out, and a penalty try (following a yellow card to Tahs tighthead Harry Johnson-Holmes) from a collapsed scrum saw the home side scoot out to 36-14.
From there it was never in doubt. Hooker David Porecki got one back for the visitors, but the Blues sealed the deal by putting Heem away for his second and third scores on a memorable night for the veteran wing.
The Brumbies are up next on Saturday back at Eden Park.
Blues 48 (Bryce Heem 3, Tom Robinson, Kurt Eklund, Rieko Ioane tries; penalty try; Otere Black pen, 4 cons), NSW Waratahs 21 (Angus Bell, Jake Gordon, David Porecki tries; Will Harrison 3 cons). Ht: 22-14.