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Blues, Chiefs pull away for SR Aupiki wins

A new champion will be crowned in Super Rugby Aupiki in 2024 after the Blues rallied from a 17-8 deficit to inflict a fourth consecutive defeat on title-holders Matatū.

The Blues only need a bonus point from their two remaining matches to qualify for the April 13 decider against Chiefs Manawa.

The Manawa remained unbeaten after overpowering the Hurricanes Poua 43-12 at Central Energy Trust Arena in Palmerston North on Friday night. 

Darkening clouds and driving rain descended on Eden Park when the Matatū least needed it. Down 20-17, stranded deep inside their 22, they had one last chance to salvage their season.

However, a desperation Charlie Woodman pass was picked off by Angelica Mekemeke-Vahai to seal the victory.

It was a match full of endeavor, 25 lineout breaks attest to that, but coaches' patience would have been stretched to boiling point as mistakes frequently undid artistry.

Blues women rugby
Two late tries lifted the Blues women over the Super Rugby Aupiki champions Matatu. PHOTO: SUPER RUGBY NZ

The most calculatedly bold call of proceedings was in the 63rd minute when the Blues were down 17-15 but were rewarded a penalty in kicking range. Instead, Ruahei Demant opted for a lineout. The ball was bobbled in the transition from catch to maul but crucially the Blues preserved. 

The hosts had success attacking Matatū up the middle of the ruck and the direct route was one taken by Aldora Itunu a nostril hair from the paint. Unsurprisingly the former Black Ferns prop was unstoppable. Earlier, Itunu levelled Laura Bayfield in a contender for the biggest hit of the season. 

Matatū started the contest with a protracted 15 phases of attack. A Mel Puckett turnover caused by lackadaisical cleaners yielded no profit.  A lack of accuracy here, and a gentle fumble there, Matatū have often been the irritable architect of their own demise.  

“There is a lot of positive stuff to take out of that, we just weren’t able to finish,” Bremner observed. 

Matatū hooker Georgia Ponsonby opened the scoring after 14 minutes, bumping off Puckett from close range. 

Katelyn Vahaakolo did her best impersonation of Doug Howlett with a breathtaking 55-metre try. She skinned three defenders and left the remainder in awe. 

Persistent penalties saw Blues lock Eloise Blackwell yellow-carded in the 34th minute. Matatū could not convert and it was 8-5 at halftime. 

Matatū midfielders Grace Brooker and Amy du Plessis have combined at international level. Their threat was constant with Brooker at times as dangerous as kryptonite. She played a hand in tries to Ponsonby and Hiini as the Matatū charged ahead 17-8. 

In her 100th first-class match, Cottrell replicated her first-round try against the Matatū with an almost direct replica of her 20-metre dash in Invercargill. 

A 17-15 lead was not enough for the Matatū. The Blues bench ran deeper and Matatū was often guilty of trying too hard. 

Women's Rugby World Cup-winning Black Ferns Demant and Liana Mikaele Tu’u enjoyed strong and welcome returns. Maama Vaipulu continues her eye-catching form and skipper Maia Roos is a force of nature.

“We’ll go back to the learning book and see where we can get better,” said Roos.

Chiefs Manawa secured a place in their third consecutive final, capitalising on a second-half capitulation by the Poua. 

With 32 minutes remaining, Poua only trailed 19-12 after a try to rookie Elinor-Plum King. Chelsea Semple had ripped possession from the plucky blindside whose audacity to snatch it back caused the Black Ferns veteran to blush.

It would be the last moment of anxiety for the visitors. In the finish, the Manawa were rampant. 

Ironically, it was 58th minute try by Semple that ensured a rut set in for Poua. Following a string of penalties, Semple glided past fatiguing defenders with ease. 

The Manawa emptied the bench and every individual made telling contributions. Especially noteworthy were pinball prop Krystal Murray and outside back Kiriana Nolan. Hooker Vici-Rose Green engineered the last try for Chyna Hohepa with a push-up and retrieval of the ball those living in military barracks would struggle to emulate.  

Chiefs Manawa rugby
Chiefs Manawa ran in seven tries to rout Hurricanes Poua. PHOTO: SUPER RUGBY NZ

Initially, the hosts attacked with variety. enjoying 73 percent of territory in the first half. Inventive kicking surprised the Manawa and the Poua were pesky at the breakdown.

Monica Tagoai continued her damaging form by repeating her first-round try against the Manawa, but the Poua squandered another three guilt-edged chances for tries.

Down 7-5, disaster struck the Poua a minute before the interval. The Chiefs snaffled a turnover and spun the ball wide to Ruby Tui, who rolled a kick forward for Mererangi Paul to pursue, collect, and score.

Tui was never far from the limelight and her 40-metre solo in the second half was headline-worthy. Japanese international Seina Saito was another worthy of plaudits. The Manawa debutant and hooker scored two tries, her second from a lineout drive bound to three teammates opposing nobody.

With 13 tackles and eight carries, Black Ferns co-captain Kennedy Simon was productive. 

A fourth straight win may have come at a cost with veteran lock Charmaine Smith carted off the field following a lengthy delay after she was tackled and fell awkwardly in the dying stages of the match.

Blues 27 (Katelyn Vahaakolo, Krysten Cottrell, Aldora Itunu, Angelica Mekemeke Vahai tries; Krysten Cottrell 2 con, pen) Matatū 17 (Georgia Ponsonby 2, Di Hiini tries; Roise Kelly con). HT: 8-5

Chiefs Manawa 43 (Seina Saito 2, Mererangi Paul; Chelsea Semple, Victoria Edmonds, Ruby Tui, Chyna Hohepa tries; Chelsea Semple 2 con, Ariana Bayler 3 con) Hurricanes Poua 12 (Monica Tagoai, Elinor-Plum King tries; Isabella Waterman con). HT: 12-5


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