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Blues stun Manawa in SR Aupiki final

The Blues are Super Rugby Aupiki champions for the first time after an improbable 24-18 victory over Chiefs Manawa at Eden Park.

With 15 minutes remaining ominous clouds became unremitting rain and the hosts were down 18-5, wobbling towards the canvas.

What followed was a genuine Houdini act sparked from a most precocious source. Kahlia Awa in her debut season produced a cameo so assured and influential it might pique the interest of Black Ferns selectors.

Rallying her beleaguered forwards, the Blues mauled within inches of the visitors' try line in the 65th minute. Suddenly the ball was disappearing quicker from the ruck.

The body position, urgency, muscle, and precision of the carries greater. Awa scored from close range, and it became 18-10. Krysten Cottrell missed, what typically for her would be, a regulation conversion.

Awa got the Blues marching again with a dart and dash that ended with a slight fumble by Niall Williams-Guthrie just outside the 22. A mighty Blues scrum resulted in a penalty. Awa tapped quickly as the Blues peppered again.

With battered bodies strewn left, Awa switched right to an unmarked Katelyn Vaha'akolo. Reese Anderson chased smartly, ushering Vaha'akolo wider but the Black Ferns flyer had enough room to finish. Cottrell nailed the sideline conversion to make it 18-17.

The Blues were hesitant from the restart. Passes were bobbled as the Chiefs hunted. Patricia Maliepo sensed the danger and smashed a kick down the middle of the field which dribbled into the Manawa in-goal area. Chelsea Semple gathered, surveyed the options, and then she was belted by Maliepo and knocked on.

The winning try had a sense of inevitability about it. Manawa mana was unquestionable, but the Blues were possessed. The collisions were gladiatorial, Awa’s clearances swift.

Eventually, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, sporting a golf ball-sized black eye, euphorically crashed over. Tension amplified when the try was investigated by the television match official. The Black Ferns Player of the Year in 2023 said afterward.

“Man, that was a tough game. We knew it would take whoever was on our team to get us to the final whistle. It’s what dreams are made of. From the first camp, I knew we had something going in this team."

“The try is for my sisters, yeah, that’s what finals footy is about, push until the 80th minute.”

Blues Women Super Rugby Aupiki
The Blues Women scored two late tries to defeat the Chiefs Manawa. PHOTO: SUPER RUGBY NZ

Much of the first half was played between the 22s. Though the Blues enjoyed 57 percent of possession and two-thirds of territory, it was the Chiefs who turned with an 8-5 advantage at the interval.

The Chiefs scored the first try in the fifth minute. Grace Steinmetz skidded on her knees to retrieve a dipping pass and then cannoned a skip ball to Ruby Tui who delicately chipped for Renee Holmes to gather the bounce.

It was a reversal of their roles from the classic try Tui scored in the Black Ferns dramatic Women's Rugby World Cup semifinal win against France in 2022 at Eden Park.

It would take 25 minutes for the next points to be scored, Holmes kicking a penalty to make it 8-0.

After Tui was penalised for leaping over an opponent, the Blues sent four passes in the direction of Vaha'akolo, who finished after early incisions threatened similar outcomes.

The Manawa stamped their authority on proceedings after the break. The suffocating maul started to purr, and the Blues discipline disappeared conceding six consecutive penalties. In the 52nd minute, Maliepo saved a certain try with a lunge and jersey pull on Reese Anderson. The Blues finally wilted two minutes later when Mia Anderson barged with venom.   

The Manawa's Black Fern lock Charmaine Smith appeared shell-shocked speaking with Sky Sport after the match.

“It was a battle. We expected nothing less. The Blues are an awesome side, but I couldn’t be prouder of the Manawa. We’ve overcome a lot of adversity,” she said.

The Manawa also lost the final from 19-0 ahead in 2023.

Blues 24 (Katelyn Vahaakolo 2, Liana Mikaele-Tu’u, Kahlia Awa tries; Krysten Cottrell 2 con) Chiefs Manawa 18 (Renee Holmes, Mia Anderson tries; Holmes con, 2 pen). HT: 5-8


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