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Blues beat Brumbies 34-20 to reach Super Rugby Pacific final

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) - The Auckland-based Blues have reached the final of the Super Rugby for the second time in three years, beating the ACT Brumbies 34-20 Friday in a rain-soaked semifinal.

14 June 2024
14 June 2024

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AP) - The Auckland-based Blues have reached the final of the Super Rugby for the second time in three years, beating the ACT Brumbies 34-20 Friday in a rain-soaked semifinal.

The Blues will face the winner of Saturday's second semifinal between the top-seeded Hurricanes and the Hamilton-based Chiefs. The final will be in Wellington if the Hurricanes win or Auckland if the Chiefs win.

The Blues were without captain Patrick Tuipulotu who suffered a knee injury in last weekend's quarterfinals. But they started well and retained strong focus and teamwork to score four tries in the first half and hold out the Brumbies in the second.

The Brumbies were chasing the game from the second minute when center A.J. Lam scored the Blues' first try. With tries to Lam, hooker Ricky Riccitelli, lock Sam Darry and winger Caleb Clarke, the Blues were ahead 27-13 by halftime.

The Brumbies held them scoreless for the first 19 minutes of the second half but, crucially, couldn't score in that period and the Blues made the game safe when backrower Hoskins Sotutu scored their fifth try in the 59th minute.

It was Sotutu's 12th try of the season which equaled the Blues' try-scoring record for a season, shared by current winger Mark Telea and former winger Doug Howlett. Sotutu also equaled the record for most tries by a forward in a Super Rugby season.

Reaching the final "means a lot," Blues stand-in captain Dalton Papali'i said. Papali'i left the field late in the match after failing a head injury assessment.

"There's a lot of old boys in this team and we've been together for so many years. We've been to two finals together. We lost one and won the other one. It means so much and we've got one more game to go."

The Blues' margins over the Brumbies were small but crucial. They had superiority at scrums which furnished penalties, they were better at lineouts and they had the biggest edge at kickoffs where the Brumbies lacked precision. They also were quicker in possession, snappier in their passing.

The Brumbies dwelt too long in possession, lacked clarity on attack. They scored tries through backrowers Rob Valetini the first half and Luke Reimer in the second.

Reimer's try made the score 34-20 at the 70 minute mark. But the Brumbies couldn't close the gap and suffered a major setback when lock Nick Frost received a yellow card in the 71st minute for a dangerous challenge in the air on Clarke.

They end the season again as the best Australian team; the only one of Australia's five teams to reach the semifinals. But there will be an all-New Zealand final for a third-straight year. The Brumbies last made the final in 2013.

Sotutu said the key to the Blues' win was to start fast and keep the pressure on. They did that, knocking the Brumbies back with Lam's try in the second minute.

The Blues kept the ball for 12 phases before flyhalf Harry Plummer bounced a pass to Lam who scored out side.

The Brumbies cut the lead with a penalty to Noah Lolesio but the Blues scored again through Riccitelli from a lineout drive in the eighth minute. After another Lolesio penalty, Darry scored in the 14th minute to make the Blues' lead 17-6. Clarke's 21st-minute try made in 24-6 but the Brumbies cut the lead with Valetini's try four minutes from halftime.

The Brumbies' inability to score from a period of ascendancy at the start of the second half was telling. The Blues made more than 160 tackles in the match to keep the Brumbies from bridging the early gap.

Sotutu's try made the lead 24-13 and Reimer's try came too late to change the outcome.

Brumbies captain Allan Alaalatoa said the game was decided by the Blues' strong start.

"We weren't clinical coming out of our end. We gave them three balls from our kickoff receipt and they made us pay through tries," he said. "You can't give a side like the Blues that ascendancy at the start of a game."