It may have been billed as the match between the top and the bottom of the New Zealand Conference, but they were difficult to separate when the Crusaders edged the Blues 21-26 at Eden Park.
The home side displayed a rock-solid and aggressive defence which shock the Crusaders through much of the first half, stopping them in their tracks as the Blues took a 15-10 lead into halftime playing into a stiff wind after heavy rain fell just before kickoff.
The Crusaders showed their class as they made the most of Blues turnover, with big winger Nemani Nadolo scoring early.
However a charge down by Jerome Kaino led to a try for Ihaia West before the Crusaders landed a penalty. A superb turnover led to a break by Piers Francis and, from the ensuing ruck, George Moala bumped off would-be defenders to score with West converting for a 15-10 halftime advantage.
The Blues had a more than useful breeze at their backs, but the stop-start nature of the second half meant they were never able to work their way into the territorial advantage.
They lost captain James Parsons within two minutes with a head knock while Patrick Tuipulotu left for a concussion test as both sides traded penalties.
The turning point came following a turnover midfield with Israel Dagg combining for Andy Ellis to score to put the visitors ahead 20-18 with 20 minutes remaining.
The Blues missed a big opportunity with a strong attack down the left flank but the pass from a rampant Quentin MacDonald went to ground and the Crusaders worked their way the length of the field on the counter.
From that point the Blues were unable to mount real pressure on the visitors, who took advantage of key penalties to stretch to a 26-18 advantage.
The Blues pressed again with some powerful bursts but in the end had to settle for the late penalty to take a bonus point although this might be considered a big fish that shook free of the line.
Blues coach Tana Umaga said his side’s defensive display was outstanding and their poise was the best this season.
“Some calls went against us that proved crucial but that’s the game,” Umaga said.
“We’ve been working towards that sort of effort on defence. We made big changes to our system and the team are now beginning to understand it, buy into it and trust each other.
“It’s great to have good defence but we need to score points and perhaps we were too frantic and gave away some silly penalties.
“You have to take your chances against a team like the Crusaders.”
The big players stood up for the Blues with Jerome Kaino sensational as was the aggression from Charlie Faumuina in defence, the eye-catching display in attack and defence from Steven Luatua while Piers Francis was excellent organising an outstanding defensive wall and attacked with flair while Moala was back to his bruising best.
Blues 21 (Ihaia West, George Moala tries; West 3 penalties, 1 conversion)
Crusaders 26 (Nemani Nadolo, Andy Ellis tries; Richie Mo’unga 4` penalties, 2 conversions)
Halftime: 15-10 Blues