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Blues cruise past hapless Tahs

The Blues have ended the Waratahs’ season with a clinical 41-12 victory in the opening Super Rugby Pacific quarterfinal of 2023.

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Auckland’s Eden Park once again proved a burial ground for Australian teams as the Blues put the Waratahs to the sword after a promising start from the visitors on Friday.

New South Wales fans would have been dreaming of busting a near-40-year trans-Tasman hoodoo after a third-minute try to lock Ned Hanigan gave the Waratahs a dream 7-0 start.

But the Blues piled on 38 straight points to preserve the record of no New Zealand team losing a Super Rugby play-off match on home turf to Australian opposition since the competition began in 1996.

The comprehensive loss also ends the decorated Waratahs career of NSW’s only Super Rugby title-winning captain Michael Hooper in merciless fashion.

With inspirational scrumhalf Jake Gordon cruelly out injured for the first time all season, Hooper was handed the captaincy arm band in what proved the champion flank’s 142nd and final game in the sky blue jumper.

But there was no fairytale for the 31-year-old – who is also the most-capped Wallabies captain – as the Tahs crashed to a third successive defeat to bow out of contention with a whimper.

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Hanigan looked like he might wind up as an improbable hero early on after playing a starring role in the Waratahs’ encouraging start.

Waratahs coach Darren Coleman made some surprise late changes to the side he initially named on Wednesday, opting to start Tane Edmed at flyhalf for the first time all season and shifting Ben Donaldson to fullback.

That meant Mark Nawaqanitawase being shifted to the wing and allowing Izaia Perese to start in his preferred outside centre position, with Lalakai Foketi benched.

The bold move paid immediate dividends with Perese breaking free after fielding a midfield kick from Beauden Barrett and then putting Hanigan over for the first try of the game after barely two minutes.

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Sensing they might have a fight on their hands, the Blues respectfully opted for three points from a penalty inside the red zone but it wasn’t long before the hosts showcased their strike power.

After bumping off Hooper then Perese, potent Blues wing Mark Telea set up an 80-metre breakout try for scrumhalf Finlay Christie.

Compounding the pain, Christie dislodged the ball from Dylan Pietsch shortly after just when the wing was over the line and seemed set to restore the Waratahs’ lead.

Then, not for the first time in Hooper’s career, he made a captain’s call he might regret when he opted to ignore three easy points from in front of goal to go for a line-out instead, only to have possession stolen at the set piece.

A second Blues try, to prop Nepo Laulala two minutes before halftime, was another coach killer for Coleman as the Waratahs went to the break trailing 17-7.

Blues hooker Ricky Riccitelli killed off any hopes of an unlikely Waratahs comeback win when he scored four minutes into the second half.

The rest of the game became academic, with the exception of Telea’s 12th try of the season that equalled the record haul of Blues legend Doug Howlett 20 years ago.

(Scorers below …)

Blues vs Waratahs - stats

The scorers

For the Blues
Tries: Christie, Laulala, Riccitelli, Sullivan, Telea
Cons: B Barrett 4, Plummer
Pen: B Barrett

For the Waratahs
Tries: Hanigan, Pietsch
Con: Edmed

Teams

Blues: 15 Zarn Sullivan, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Bryce Heem, 11 AJ Lam, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Finlay Christie, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii (captain), 6 Akira Ioane, 5 James Tucker, 4 Tom Robinson, 3 Nepo Laulala, 2 Ricky Riccitelli, 1 Ofa Tuungafasi.
Replacements: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Jordan Lay, 18 Marcel Renata, 19 Cameron Suafoa, 20 Anton Segner, 21 Sam Nock, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Stephen Perofeta.

Waratahs: 15 Mark Nawaqanitawase, 14 Izaia Perese, 13 Joey Walton, 12 Lalakai Foketi, 11 Dylan Pietsch, 10 Ben Donaldson, 9 Harrison Goddard, 8 Langi Gleeson, 7 Michael Hooper (captain), 6 Lachie Swinton, 5 Ned Hanigan, 4 Jed Holloway, 3 Archer Holz, 2 Dave Porecki, 1 Te Tera Faulkner.
Replacements: 16 Mahe Vailanu, 17 Tom Lambert, 18 Nephi Leatigaga, 19 Taleni Seu, 20 Charlie Gamble, 21 Teddy Wilson, 22 Tane Edmed, 23 Harry Wilson.

Referee: Ben O’Keeffe
Assistant referees: Stu Curran, Jackson Henshaw
TMO: Shane McDermott

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