Flyhalf Isa Nacewa kicked 19 points to steer the Auckland Blues to a 34-25 win over the defending champion Canterbury Crusaders in the opening match of the 2007 Super 14 rugby competition yesterday.
Both sides scored three tries but Nacewa's two conversions and five penalties kept the Blues in front of a depleted but defiant Crusaders.
Nacewa's fifth penalty 22 minutes from full time clinched the match for Auckland after Canterbury had closed within six points at Eden Park.
He also denied the Crusaders the consolation of a bonus point for finishing within seven points.
The effect of the absence of 22 All Blacks from the first half of this year's competition was immediately apparent as the Crusaders, the most heavily depleted of New Zealand's franchises, struggled to achieve their typical control and discipline.
The match also tested new scrum laws introduced this season by the International Rugby Board (IRB) and showed them to be problematic.
The four-stage engagement promoted by the IRB to reduce scrum injuries made scrums awkward and unwieldy, and seemed particularly to disadvantage the team with the loosehead.
Former All Blacks center Isaia Toeava scored the first try of this year's Super 14 after 15 minutes when Nacewa and Canterbury's Brent Ward exchanged penalties and Canterbury led 6-3.
The Blues produced an outstanding piece of attacking backplay after George Pisi created a turnover and, at its end, Anthony Tuitavake and Auckland captain Troy Flavell handled brilliantly to put Toeava over near the posts.
Auckland led 10-6 and never relinquished the lead. Nacewa kicked three penalties to expand its margin to 19-6 but Canterbury captain Corey Flavell scored a try near half-time to trim the lead to 19-13 at the break.
Toeava's replacement, Rudi Wulf, scored in the fifth minute of the second half, giving Auckland a 24-13 lead before Canterbury hit back with a try to No. 8 Mose Tuiali'i.
All Blacks winger Doug Howell scored next for Auckland, after a telling break by his international teammate Luke McAlister, and Auckland led 31-20.
Canterbury replied again with a try to another All Blacks regular, winger Rico Gear which left Auckland clinging to a 31-25 advantage before Nacewa's 68th minute penalty gave them some breathing space.
"It was a great first-up performance by the guys," Flavell said. "We worked hard all week at our set pieces and we wanted to come at Canterbury with a lot of physicality, which I think we did."
``Obviously this builds a lot of momentum and we knew how important it was going to be to win this to set us up for next week and the rest of the season,'' he said.
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