CRUSAFIED: Blues beat champion Crusaders.
Blues v Crusaders, Eden Park Auckland
SUPER 12 rugby spluttered into the second round with a dour battle at Eden Park that saw the reigning champions - the Crusaders - toppled 17-12 by the hometown Blues.
The two evenly matched sides were always going to serve up an extremely hard, physical contest where forward play and defence dominates. Mistakes and turnovers are crucial in these struggles and the team which best takes advantage of every chance usually prevails.
Three-time champs the Crusaders are past masters in these rugged encounters but they had to get on their feet after being knocked flat last week when they suffered a relentless beating by the in-form ACT Brumbies.
The calibre of their management, leadership and players meant they would surely rebound but, unfortunaely for their supporters, they remain obviously flat and seem disturbingly short of options.
And against a Blues team that is invigorated by the new management - Frank Oliver and John Kirwan - the Crusaders could ill afford to be out of sorts and it was a testimony to the sheer guts of their defence that they remained in touch with their opponents for the entire 80 minutes.
After an early try to tough breakaway Matua Parkinson, that was converted by Carlos Spencer the Blues held a slender advantage throughout most of the game and with their highly exciting young backline looked the most likely of the two teams to score again.
Meanwhile despite their lack of form the Crusaders on the back of their "in-your-face" defence could have easily taken the lead through accurate goalkicking, especially in the first half when referee Paul Honiss hammered the Blues for failing to stay upright in the play the ball.
With Andrew Mehrtens yet to return from injury and Ben Blair on the bench Aaron Mauger was kicking the goals for the Red and Blacks and he had an unlucky first 40 minutes - missing several penalties and a drop goal. This saw the Blues leading until the deep into the game until Blair - who replaced Fijian Marika Vunibaka at halftime - got the opportunity to exorcise the demons of a poor game against ACT - which he did so by landing two penalties to earn the Crusaders a 12-10 lead with 15 minutes to go.
Champion teams win playing badly and the Crusaders appeared poised to follow that tradition when, with only minutes remaining Spencer unleashed his unpredictable brillance and with a burst of acceleration, a swerve and a pin-point pass he put his right-winger Mils Miliana away for a match-winning dash to score in the corner.
Spencer converted and at the final whistle the Blues found themselves with their first win of the season while the noble Crusaders remain without a victory and are left pondering what has to be done to regain the form all rugby fans know they are capable of producing.
BLUES 17 ( Matua Parkinson, Muls Miliana tries; Carlos Spencer 2 cons, 1 pen), Crusaders 12 ( Ben Blair 2 pen, Aaron Mauger 2 pen)