The Blues kicked off their 2011 Super Rugby campaign in emphatic fashion, defeating the Crusaders 24-22 in a thriller at Eden Park on Saturday night.
Trailing by 6-19 at half time, the Blues showed incredible resolve to stage a dramatic comeback, scoring three second half tries to clinch their first victory over the Crusaders since 2007.
It was Benson Stanley and Tony Woodcock who hit back for the home side with tries early in the second half, before captain Keven Mealamu made the bold move of turning down a possible three points and opting to kick for touch with 10 minutes on the clock and behind by 19-22.
That decision turned out to be a stroke of brilliance by the hooker, as it was he himself who scored the winning try for the Blues, darting blind from a rolling maul and bowling over Andy Ellis on his way to the line.
It was a result that would have seemed unlikely to the 32,700 boisterous fans who descended on Eden Park for the season opener, as it was the Blues who found themselves behind on the scoreboard almost immediately, Chris Pollock penalising Rene Ranger for being offside as Dan Carter duly obliged with a penalty kick.
The Blues’ defence was firing early on with some massive hits as they repelled the Crusaders’ potent attack, before returning serve with some thrilling attacking rugby of their own.
Former Crusader and new Blues recruit Jared Payne made some big inroads down the left flank and Stephen Brett then appeared to waltz over and score under the posts against his former team, but Pollock denied him the try as John Afoa was adjudged to have obstructed a Crusaders defender.
The Cantabrian did get the Blues on the board soon after however, landing two consecutive penalty kicks as the Blues took a 6-3 lead after 12 minutes.
The Crusaders replied with a penalty to level the scores before Israel Dagg showed his class to set up Sean Maitland for a try.
Playing his first game in a Crusaders jersey, the former Highlander put in a superb grubber kick that raced along the sideline, and with the Blues’ back three caught out of position, Maitland sprinted onto the ball at pace and regathered it to score after 20 minutes.
Brett looked to counter the try with a deft grubber of his own as John Afoa and Jerome Kaino both tried to pounce on the ball over the line, but after multiple replays the television match official denied the hosts.
While it was a match that defied the early season status as both teams showed a skill level and physicality rarely seen in the opening weekend of Super Rugby, one skill which was sadly lacking was the goal kicking as both first five-eighths struggled to find their rhythm.
Carter landed a rare penalty kick before the Crusaders scored on the stroke of halftime.
Robbie Fruean showed he will be one to watch closely this season as he made light work of John Afoa to charge downfield, and from the ensuing ruck the ball made its way to Israel Dagg whose pass went wayward, only for Matt Todd to hack it ahead through the legs of Isaia Toeava as Andy Ellis dived on it over the line to score.
Rene Ranger sparked his side into action in the second half, brushing aside two Crusaders defenders as he raced down the sideline before passing a lovely inside ball to Benson Stanley who dived over to kick-start the Blues’ fightback.
Both Brett and Carter traded penalties before Woodcock finished off a sublime piece of phase play from the Blues to burrow over from close range.
Alby Mathewson then made a decisive break, throwing a dummy from the ruck and scampering 40 metres downfield. As he chased, the Blues were able to regather the ball and from the penalty, Mealamu opted for the corner from which the Blues scored the match-winning try.
It was a tense final three minutes as the Crusaders tried to strike back, but a sensational piece of pilfering by Jerome Kaino saw the Blues awarded a penalty as Lachie Munro sent the ball sailing high into the South Stand to mark a sensational start to the season for the Blues.
The Blues now travel to South Africa where they take on the Sharks in Durban on Sunday Morning (kick-off 4.05am).
What were your thoughts on the match?