Sun, May 25, 2003 - Page 22 News List

Auckland Blues take Super 12

RUGBY UNION The Canterbury Crusaders were overcome 21-17 by a team that had won 10 of 11 regular season matches to become the top qualifiers for the semifinals

AP , AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

The Auckland Blues players celebrate with the Super 12 trophy after their victory over the Canterbury Crusaders in the final of the Super 12 at Eden Park in Auckland, yesterday. The Blues won 21-17.

PHOTO: REUTERS

The Auckland Blues replenished a trophy cabinet barren since 1997 when they beat the Canterbury Crusaders 21-17 in the Super 12 rugby union final at Eden Park on Saturday.

The Crusaders, who were defending the title they have won four times since 1998, had 11 All Blacks in their starting 15 and a further three among their reserves. They were expected to provide the basis of the All Black squad of 26 coach John Mitchell will name Monday for midseason test matches against England, Ireland and Wales.

But the Blues threatened the tenure of several incumbent All Blacks with their superb team effort. They achieved something few other teams have achieved in the past six years, during which the Crusaders have appeared in five Super 12 finals: they created disorder in the Canterbury ranks.

The Blues, who won 10 of 11 regular season matches to become the leading qualifiers for the semifinals, were the most attractive team in the Super 12 during a long path to the final. They scored 67 tries among more than 600 regular season points.

Crusaders hooker Mark Hammett scored two tries during a first-half battle of attrition to give the Crusaders a 10-6 lead at halftime. The Blues' points came from two Carlos Spencer penalties.

The Blues wrested the match from Canterbury during the first 25 minutes of the second half when they scored tries through fullback Doug Howlett and flanker Daniel Braid.

They then resisted intense and protracted Crusaders pressure through the final quarter of the match to win their third title since the Super 12 began in 1996.

Under Graham Henry, who was among their coaching staff Saturday, they won the championship in each of its first two years.

Scores

* Auckland Blues 21, (Doug Howlett, Daniel Braid tries; Carlos Spencer conversion, 3 penalties)

* Cantebury Crusaders 17, (Mark Hammett 2, Caleb Ralph tries; Andrew Mehrtens conversion)


Howlett gave the Blues the lead, by a single point, with his try in the third minute of the second half. Halfback David Gibson penetrated the close defense on the right of an attack ruck and fed center

Mils Muliaina who freed win Rico Gear near the touchline.

Gear turned the ball back infield and Howlett, arriving at pace in support, crossed the goalline untouched.

Canterbury was unwilling to surrender the title without a fight. They relentlessly battered the Auckland line in the dying minutes of the match and twice went close to scoring, but were hurled back by the defense.

Inside center Daniel Carter was put into space but lost the ball over the goalline and fullback Leon MacDonald made a desperate bid for the left hand corner but was driven out of play by Howlett's courageous tackle.

Center Caleb Ralph scored for Canterbury, almost anticlimactically after sustained pressure, but his try, in the 77th minute, came too late to save Canterbury.

They turned over possession within their 22 shortly after the restart and Auckland were able to run the ball into touch to end the match.

Halfback David Gibson, playing as a replacement for the injured All Black Steve Devine, had an outstanding match for the Blues in his first starting role and in his first Super 12 season.

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