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Blues Women end Matatū's title defence hopes

Blues Women end Matatū's title defence hopes

All BlacksMarch 24, 2024

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 upon title-holders Matatū.

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

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

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

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

Their fractured scrum stubbornly held and halfback Di Hiini peeled urgently blindside delivering to Charlie Woodman. Could Woodman see a glimmer of hope, a Jean-Luc Sadourny moment? 

High risk sometimes leads to high rewards. Not today for Matatū. Woodman’s audacious pass was plucked off by Angelica Mekemeke-Vahai as the Garden of Eden became the tree of knowledge collapsing before Southern eyes. Woodman’s blemish was an understandable dance with the desperate.

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.

The most calculatedly bold call of proceedings was in the 63rd minute when the Blues were down 15-17 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 lots of 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. 

“That was tough, they really brought it, they were clinical,” Matatū captain Alana Bremner conceded. 

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. 

Hinni dispatched the restart out on the full and then Matatū infringed allowing Krysten Cottrell to slot a penalty.

On Tuesday several Blues alumni meet for a celebratory lunch. Doug Howlett who exhilarated Eden Park on countless occasions attended. Katelyn Vahaakolo did her best impersonation of 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 couldn’t 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 Matatū charged ahead 17-8. 

Bremner is an exceptional leader of Matatū. Cottrell holds similar mana within the Blues. In her 100th first-class match, Cottrell replicated her first-round try against Matatū with an almost direct replica of her 20-metre dash in Invercargill. 

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

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,” a bubbly, exhausted, Roos warned afterward. 

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

Chiefs Manawa secured a place in their third consecutive final capitalising on a second-half capitulation by 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 Manawa was rampant and Poua was puffing. 

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. 

Manawa emptied the bench and every individual made telling contributions. Especially noteworthy were pinball prop Krystal Murray and graceful 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.  

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

Monica Tagoai continued her damaging form by repeating her first-round try against Manawa. Poua squandered another three guilt-edged chances for tries. Black Ferns halfback Iritana Hohaia was incisive, first-five Hannah King is growing in stature and Layla Sae is consistently excellent.

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

Tui is 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. The Hurricanes Poua wall splintered into dust from the Chiefs thrust. Saito’s legs flailed like a Flintmoblie. 

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.

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