Herald on Sunday
MacDonald: Final ‘scary watching’
Pride and relief were palpable from Blues coach Leon MacDonald after his side shook off the burden of history to claim the Super Rugby Transtasman title last night.
The Blues’ 23-15 win over the tenacious Highlanders at Eden Park wasn’t pretty or anywhere close to perfect, but in a final, the result is ultimately all that matters.
The Blues needed a pair of unlikely heroes — replacement playmaker Harry Plummer, who slotted a clutch long-range penalty and sideline conversion, and a 77th-minute try from Blake Gibson — to claim their first title in 18 years.
“Not easy on the heart,” MacDonald said after describing his rollercoaster of emotions when the Highlanders stole the lead to stir up ghosts of the past with 10 minutes remaining. “It was a real final. It was combative and physical with drama.
“We’re thrilled to get there in the end, but it didn’t look that way with 10 minutes to go, it was quite hairy for us, so to pull it back and get the win, we’re stoked.”
MacDonald singled out Plummer for praise after he exorcised demons to come good for the Blues when they needed him most.
“I wouldn’t have liked going to that last maul knowing they could score and win the game,” MacDonald said of Plummer’s sideline conversion that established an eight-point buffer.
“They were two big plays. Harry has been kicking the ball really well at training and he’s a confident player. He’s been through a lot. He copped some criticism when he missed a kick against the Crusaders two years ago. A lot of people who have criticised him, he’s answered that in spades.”
The weight of history was evident for the Blues as they bashed away at the Highlanders line for long periods, only to blow chances with a lack of patience on attack. Each time the Blues botched tries, tension escalated from their helpless coaching box.
“We got a bit frantic at times and tried to make the miracle play,” MacDonald said. “You get a little bit anxious when you start thinking about the result and it probably happened with the last 10 minutes. We got a penalty, kicked it down, and our first strike, we dropped the ball. We just needed to be really ruthless there and that got them back in the game.
“There were a few moments we weren’t at our best but we did play good rugby and apply pressure. The points weren’t coming, but if we stayed true, we knew they would. This was probably to the utmost degree when we scored a try near the end of the game. It was scary watching from the coaching box.”
Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu had an unusual finish to the match after being surprisingly substituted in the 57th minute, only to return not long after when Josh Goodhue suffered a head knock.
Tuipulotu felt finally breaking through to claim an elusive title proved the Blues’ progression.
“A lot has been said about the last time the Blues were in the finals. For us, it’s about building something new. It’s been bubbling over a couple of years.”
MacDonald plaid tribute to his departing players — lock Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, second-five TJ Faiane and first-five Otere Black — and suggested the Blues are far from the finished product yet.
“It’s a great story for a lot of these guys who have been with this club for a long time and done some hard years. They’ve made their decisions to move offshore, so to leave their time with a win is fantastic.”