Super Rugby - Round 1
Brave Blues see off Crusaders
February 20, 2011

A gutsy decision by inspirational skipper Keven Mealamu capped a dramatic comeback as the Blues beat the Crusaders 24-22 in Auckland on the opening weekend of the new Super Rugby season.

Trailing by three points with 10 minutes left, Mealamu opted to forgo a shot at goal to gamble for a try and it was the hooker himself who crossed to give the hosts the perfect start to the season. It was the finale to a stunning second-half for the Pat Lam-coached team, who scored three tries after the break to rally from a 6-19 halftime deficit. Benson Stanley started the revival, before prop Tony Woodcock narrowed the gap to pave the way for his All Blacks front row partner Mealamu to seal the win.

It was the first win for the Blues over the Crusaders since 2007 and in front of a bumper 32,700-strong crowd who would have had their doubts of such a result after tries by Sean Maitland and Andy Ellis gave the visitors the first half advantage. Fly-halves Dan Carter and Stephen Brett, playing his former province, traded penalties, with Carter landing four to Brett's three, but the home side won the game elsewhere. All Blacks lock Ali Williams, playing his first Super rugby game in almost two years, lasted 63 minutes before he was withdrawn.

Later in the day, the Bulls kicked off the defence of their title with 24-20 victory over the Lions at Ellis Park - but only after withstanding a stirring late fightback from the home side. A rout appeared a distinctly possibility during a first quarter in which the Bulls racked up two tries, through fullback Zane Kirchner and winger Gerhard van den Heever. Fly-half Morne Steyn converted the second of those scores and then added two penalties to put the visitors 18 points ahead after just 27 minutes of play.

Centre Waylon Murray got the Lions off the mark with a try on 35 minutes but Steyn replied with another brace of penalties to send the Bulls in 24-5 up at the interval. Remarkably, though, the Bulls failed to score in the second half as the Lions launched a brave attempt at a comeback, with the sin-binning of Bulls centre Stephan Dippenaar acting as a catalyst. Martin Bezuidenhout crashed over while Dippenaar was still in the bin, before No.8 Warren Whiteley followed the replacement over just three minutes later to set up a grandstand finish.

A penalty from fly-half Elton Jantjies then saw the Lions draw to within four points with 12 minutes remaining but, despite their best efforts, the Lions were ultimately forced to settling for nothing more than a losing bonus point.

Elsewhere, the Brumbies got their season off on a winning note in Canberra, edging a competitive clash with the Chiefs 28-20 despite a second-half wobble. A solo score from young centre Robbie Coleman and powerful effort from winger Francis Fainifo gave the home side an 18-0 lead early on, with three butchered tries by the Chiefs in a bizarre two-minute period while prop Nathan White was in the sin-bin proving the ultimate penalty as they failed to regroup.

All Blacks wing Sitiveni Sivivatu and a spectacular solo effort from replacement halfback Tawera Kerr-Barlow provided the Chiefs with a glimmer entering the final quarter but stand-in Brumbies captain Matt Giteau's third penalty and a close range try from Salesi Ma'afu suggested the Chiefs would head home empty handed. However, the visitors teased and tormented to the last. Replacement wing Lelia Masaga crossed after the hooter but Tim Nanai-Williams could only direct the angled conversion on to the right hand upright to deny the visitors a bonus point.

The Reds opened their account with a narrow 21-20 victory over Australian rivals the Western Force on Sunday. A first half kicking duel saw James O'Connor outgun Quade Cooper to give the Force a 12-6 lead at the break and the Reds suffered a further blow with a yellow card for winger Rod Davies.

O'Connor and Cooper traded further penalties after the break before Reds hooker Saia Faingaa caught the Force napping to notch the opening try and close the deficit to one point. But O'Connor struck back with a superb breakaway score - racing home from 80m after pouncing on a loose pass from Cooper with team-mate Matt Hodgson in the sin-bin. The Reds rallied as the game entered the closing stages and replacement hooker James Hanson burrowed over and Cooper's conversion was enough to win the game.

The Sharks followed up their Currie Cup success in October with an accomplished start to the season by registering a 24-9 win over the Cheetahs at Kings Park Stadium in Durban. Sharks flanker Jacques Botes touched down after just two minutes off the back of a powerful rolling maul and Patrick Lambie added a penalty as they hit their stride. The hosts had further chances to extend their lead but centre Stefan Terblanche missed long-range efforts from halfway, which allowed Cheetahs fly-half Naas Olivier to reduce the deficit with penalties either side of half-time.

Another two penalties from Olivier kept the Cheetahs in touch before Springbok hooker Bismarck du Plessis barged over from close range to swing the tie in favour of the Sharks. Lambie was replaced with 11 minutes remaining but his substitute Jacques-Louis Potgieter was similarly accurate with a penalty five minutes from time.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the Melbourne Rebels endured a nightmare start to their life in Super Rugby as they were hammered 43-0 by a fast-finishing Waratahs side at AAMI Park. Drew Mitchell and Kurtley Beale did the damage for the visitors, while Danny Cipriani made his Rebels bow as an early replacement.

Also on Friday, the Highlanders scored the first upset of the new season with a 14-9 victory over the Hurricanes in Wellington. It will go down as one of the least memorable season-opening matches in 16 years of professional Super rugby but the Highlanders will have few complaints. There were mistimed passes, handling errors, missed goalkicks, stoppages, penalties and other infringements galore - not to mention the sending off of All Blacks centre Ma'a Nonu - but the upshot of it all was a brilliant start to the new season for the southern men, New Zealand's perennial strugglers of recent seasons.

They scored the only try of the match, to Wellington-born pivot Lima Sopoaga, and led 11-6 at half-time, but the key moment came 10 minutes into the second half when Nonu was sent off by Australian whistleblower Stu Dickinson for a second yellow card offence. The dreadlocked midfield back was sinbinned in the first half for lying on the ball and a lack of discipline cost him and the Hurricanes when he shoulder charged Highlanders scrum-half Jimmy Cowan, Dickinson with no option other than to produce a second yellow card and the mandatory red. The Highlanders could have put the hosts away but mistakes at crucial times cost them and Sopoaga missed four kicks at goal.

The Hurricanes were handed a lifeline when Highlanders substitute Brayden Mitchell was sinbinned for a professional foul with 10 minutes remaining, but they never really threatened the line as a steady flow of penalties and errors marred the match.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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