Late tries to first-five Carlos Spencer and centre Luke McAlister (in the 71st and 74th minute respectively) capped a remarkable comeback for the home team who had looked a spent force in the face of some dogged Reds defence.
It was a match that will leave a star-studded Blues side with plenty of food for thought.
Earlier, with two penalties in just 43 seconds, referee Tappe Henning looked to be in danger of being the first to break into a sweat... bench-pressing his whistle. Blues second-five Sam Tuitupou put an end to that, sticking his hand up for running rugby with a burst from his own 10m line.
It would prove a highlight of some decidedly average first-half rugby from the Blues. Centre McAlister�s first penalty attempt is away off the left-hand upright five minutes in. Then, on the back of the expected dominance of his pack, Spencer dials 0800 HIGHBALL. And while it almost pays off immediately (the TMO ruling no 14 Isa Nacewa failed to gain downward pressure), neither he nor McAlister can cash in.
Again and again, camped in their own half (if not their own 22) the Reds defence holds, no 8 John Roe and halfback Josh Valentine the heroes. But wayward passes and unforced knock-ons don�t help the Eden Park cause. With McAlister�s second miss, their confidence sags even more.
The territorial dominance climbs as high as 89%. (If it was an election, even Americans would be voting.) Blues no 9 David Gibson has a field day harassing a back-peddling halfback/no 8 combo of Roe and Valentine, yet still points elude his team.
Instead, Reds captain Elton Flatley (replacing Julian Huxley after he let the Hurricanes off the hook last week) lends his side solidity and direction. It�s Flatley who converts the Reds first real scoring opportunity to (incredibly) put the visitors up 3-0 in the 38th minute.
Halftime score: 3-0 Reds.
After sparking a breakout, big man Wendell Sailor finds himself on the end of a sweeping Reds backline movement with a man to beat in the 44th minute. Try. And Flatley�s sideline conversion is superb. 10-0 Reds. That comfortable win over the Highlanders must be a distant memory for the Blues now.
So is McAlister�s 100% record. The centre�s response is to miss his third penalty attempt. Unbelievably, his fourth sails wide too - only because he�s not allowed to throw it over. As the home team�s frustration grows, the Reds begin backing themselves on the outside... fullback Drew Mitchell joining Sailor on an excursion. Valentine throws some sniping runs around rucks and mauls into the mix.
Then in the 57th minute, with Flatley blood-binned, Spencer breaks through blindside, and though the try-making pass is dragged in by Reds hooker Stephen Moore, prop Nick Stiles is yellow-carded for killing the ball repeatedly. McAlister finally puts the Blues on the board with a 61st minute penalty. And another in the 68th.
10-6 Reds. Spencer�s blindside again, running off the shoulder of no 8 Xavier Rush... he's through. The ball swings back inside before Nacewa finds Spencer outside again for the 42m try. One point in it.
After a poor Reds restart, Spencer does it all over again (no one knows where that switch is, but he's flicked it), combining with no 7 Daniel Braid to run McAlister in under the bar. The centre adds the 74th minute conversion: 18-10.
A late try to flanker Daniel Heenan ensures the Reds earn a bonus point, their sole point in the competition thus far.
Final score: 18-15 Blues.
Blues. Tries: Luke McAlister, Carlos Spencer. Penalties: McAlister (2). Conversions: McAlister.
Reds. Tries: Wendell Sailor, Daniel Heenan. Penalties: Elton Flatley. Conversions: Flatley.
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