At Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland: Blue’s 32 (Tamati Tua try 9min, Ricky Riccitelli 2 tries 29min, 33min, Luke Romano try 55min, Finlay Christie try 69min; Stephen Perofeta pen, 2 con), Moana Pasifika 19 (Luteru Tolai try 37min, Abraham Pole try 46min, Tomasi Alosio try 59min; D’Angelo Leuila with, Lincoln McClutchie with). HT: 19-5.
Network card: Nepo Laulala 57min.
Make no mistake, Moana Pasifika are very much the real deal. Aaron Mauger’s men of the moment gave crosstown rivals the Blues all they could handle in Tuesday’s first Super Rugby Pacific Auckland derby at Mount Smart Stadium.
Just four days after their historic victory over the Hurricanes at the same venue, the competition new chums pushed their big brothers from up the road to the limit, eventually beaten 32-19, but not before serving up a host of anxious moments for the visitors over the run home.
There was a juncture 10 minutes into the second half when Moana looked like they might have leveled the scores (at 19-19), only for hooker Luteru Tolai to be denied a second try from the driving maul for a second movement.
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The Blues survived that danger point, as well as a red card to All Blacks tighthead prop Nepo Laula in the 57th minute for a shoulder to the head of Lincoln McClutchie at a ruck, to rather scramble victory, five tries to three. They spent much of the second 40 on the back foot, and did well in the end to navigate an awkward situation a man down, with their opposition’s tails up.
Moana Pasifika were excellent off the lineout-drive, scoring two of their three tries via that avenue, and very nearly a third, but also seemed likely with ball in hand when they got things rolling. Fullback D’Angelo Leuila had a strong game (53 meters on the carry), Solomone Kata grew into the game in midfield and wings Tomasi Alosio and Anzelo Tuitavuki were full of running.
The Blues did enough, but continue to struggle to put full performances together. Jacob Ratumaitavuki-Kneepens had a strong game with ball in hand (117m on 11 carries), Mark Telea and Tamati Tua had their moments and the pack, led by hooker Ricky Riccitelli and old dog Luke Romano, were also likely on the drive – scoring three tries themselves there.
Not surprisingly, both teams were decidedly scratchy as they interspersed errors with the positive stuff for the first part of this contest. That was to be expected given the scratch nature of both lineups as the coaches dug deep into their squads to get through a tough schedule of three games in little more than a week, and another Covid outbreak in Moana’s case.
In effect this was the Blues backups against their Moana opposites, with one or two exceptions, and the result was that neither side exactly hit the ground running. But they did settle in time for a pretty decent contest to break out in the second half.
The Blues did what they had to score three first-half tries en route to a 19-5 lead, but with two of those coming via the lineout-drive route, to hooker Riccitelli, it’s hard to imagine that coach MacDonald was too satisfied at the halftime break.
He would have been especially annoyed at giving up the late score to Moana hooker Tolai, also via a well-organized lineout-drive, though on balance it was probably the least the home side served in front of their small but vocal band of supporters.
When Moana scored first in the second spell, to prop Abraham Pole, it was game on. They even looked set to finish over the top of the visitors, when wing Alosio soared high to pluck Lincoln McClutchie’s crosskick out of the air to make it 24-19, soon after Laulala’s exit. But the Blues steadied in the final quarter, with Fin Christie’s late try sparing the blushes, and saving the day.
The Big Moment
Replacement halfback Christie’s try in the 69th minute. The Blues, down a man, were under the cosh, and struggling to hold on. But on a rare foray into enemy territory, off a Ratumaitavuki-Kneepens break, the little halfback finished a nice period of pressure football to establish some much-needed breathing room.
7/10 This matchup of the respective second strings was slow to get going, but came alive in the second spell when Moana Pasifika found their rhythm and came surging back at the Blues. In the end we got an absorbing battle in which the home team took another massive stride towards respectability.
The big pictures
The Blues’ show rolls on. That’s four in a row now for the Auks, with the very real prospect of hitting five in the return fixture on Saturday. All while remaining a long way from playing the sort of rugby they’re capable of.
For Moana it’s another lesson in what’s likely to be a season of them. They introduced a dozen more players to this level, and by the second half they all looked pretty comfortable. They’ll know deep down now that their crosstown rivals are not out of their reach. In fact, far from it.
Blues hooker Riccitelli’s two tries were vital. He gets the honors on a night when his pack got the side home.