The Canterbury Crusaders opened the Super 15 season with a hard-fought 19-18 victory over archrivals the Auckland Blues at Eden Park yesterday.
The Blues scored two tries to one in an encounter in which both sides were bristling with All Blacks fresh from New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup win on home soil last year, but Crusaders’ rookie Tyler Bleyendaal proved the difference.
Bleyendaal, proving a worthy stand-in for injured All Blacks star fly-half Dan Carter on his Super 15 debut, kicked four penalties from six and hit one conversion to steer last year’s losing finalists home.
The match reached a dramatic conclusion when World Cup hero Piru Weepu, in his first appearance for the Blues since defecting from the Wellington Hurricanes, unsuccessfully attempted a drop-goal after the final siren.
The Crusaders’ rushing defense proved enough to distract Weepu’s effort, although captain Kieran Read admitted his side was fortunate to come-from-behind to win.
“I guess we were pretty lucky, but what a game, real intensity out there,” he said. “There were a few too many errors, we let in a couple of silly tries early, they put a bit of pressure on us.”
The Blues shot to an early lead with two tries in the first 15 minutes as the Crusaders looked uncharacteristically rusty, although Bleyendaal kept the seven-times champions in touch with two penalties.
Blues flanker Chris Lowrey scored the first try of the Super 15 season after a rushed kick from the Crusaders’ Israel Dagg was charged down, with Michael Hobbs slotting home a straightforward conversion.
The second try came when a line-breaking run from Rene Ranger sparked a fluid back-line movement from the Blues, culminating in a pin-point pass from veteran Mils Mealamu to send fast-running rookie David Raikuna over the line.
The Crusaders hit back when Robbie Freuan found a gap in the Blues’ defense, with Bleyendaal’s conversion edging them ahead for the first time in the match 13-12.
Bleyendaal then kicked home his third penalty to extend the Christchurch team’s lead to 16-12 mid-way through the first half.
The Crusaders, growing in confidence, dominated possession for the rest of the half, but did not trouble the scorers further before the break.
The Blues piled on the pressure after the restart and were rewarded with two penalties, which Hobbs converted with clean strikes to put the Aucklanders ahead.
Blues coach Pat Lam then injected World Cup star Piri Weepu with 25 minutes to go. The former Wellington Hurricanes player was responsible for a defensive lapse that gave Bleyendaal another penalty and the Crusaders the lead.
Clever kicking from Weepu, who is well short of match fitness, gave the Blues opportunities, but they could not break down the Crusaders’ defense.
Meanwhile, a new-look ACT Brumbies gave new coach Jake White a winning start to his career in Australia, as they held off the Western Force 19-17 in their Super Rugby clash in Canberra yesterday.
Former South Africa World Cup-winning coach White took over the under-performing Brumbies this season and has cleared out several of the side’s established players, giving six players in his 22-match day squad their first Super Rugby call-up as he looks to rebuild the side.
Both teams were heavily penalized by New Zealand referee Bryce Lawrence for multiple indiscretions at the breakdown or by being in front of the kicker, as they looked to play a territory-dominated game with little width or adventure in their attack.