In conceding 16 penalties to the Blues’ five and playing a relentlessly grinding, finals-style game, the Brumbies would not have won over any new supporters during their 21-19 defeat in Canberra.
But they did open a window into how the previously free-wheeling Blues may be troubled in the playoffs, and the flipside to the Blues having guaranteed themselves home advantage for as long as they stay in the finals is the likelihood that Leon MacDonald’s team have put themselves into the more difficult side of the draw.
If the next few weeks go to form, and it’s difficult to know what that looks like given the unpredictability of the Highlanders in particular, the Blues may face the Highlanders and Chiefs in their respective quarterfinal and semifinal before potentially facing the Crusaders in the final.
The Chiefs, who accounted for the Force 54-21 in Hamilton, appear to be shifting through the gears after their fright against the Rebels in Melbourne the weekend earlier.
The immediate fate of Sam Cane, who injured a knee against the Force, is unknown but they appear ominous and will feel they should have beaten the Blues in their round robin match at Eden Park. They have the game to trouble the Blues.
The Crusaders, who will likely finish second on the table after predictably thrashing the Fijian Drua 61-3 in a chilly Christchurch, may host the Reds in their quarterfinal and Brumbies in their semifinal.
Given the red-and-blacks’ troubles in losing to the Chiefs at home this year, and their relative ease in beating the Brumbies in Canberra, that’s a schedule they’ll likely be happy with.
There is one round to go (two in the case of Moana Pasifika and the Force, who play in a catch-up game on Tuesday night), but there is a sense that the quality is rising to the top – the Blues, Crusaders, Brumbies and Chiefs appear the best teams in the competition, and we’ll know more about the Waratahs when they host the Blues on Saturday.
The Highlanders, who lost 32-20 to the Waratahs in Dunedin, saw their hopes of a victory diminish when Sam Gilbert was red carded for tipping opposition loose forward Michael Hooper on his head just before the half hour mark
Their poor discipline in the second half continued to be their undoing.
With Marty Banks replacing Gilbert after 20 minutes, the Highlanders narrowed the gap to 19-15 via Scott Gregory’s try, and the Waratahs, with the wind in their sails but an apparent confusion as to how to navigate their way home, finally got there with a little help from their hosts.
The Highlanders are an under-manned, increasingly whacky outfit apparently determined to paint themselves as rugby’s own version of The Suicide Squad. They will likely lose Gilbert to suspension for the next fortnight at least, but, like the fictional rag-tag unit, they possess danger - in their case the form of halfbacks Aaron Smith and Folau Fakatava.
The Brumbies, for all their faults, were unhappy with aspects of the officiating of their defeat to the Blues and, in looking at the final seconds in particular, they may have a point.
Beauden Barrett kicked the winning dropped goal after the final hooter had sounded but only after referee Damon Murphy had awarded the Blues a penalty advantage for a ruck offence when Brumbies replacement back Ollie Sapsford appeared to have rights to the ball.
The penalty could have gone the other way, allowing the Brumbies to hold on for a famous victory, but these are likely to be the size of the margins over the next month.
Attacking ambition may be about to be superseded by the need for accuracy, efficiency, and the need to hold one’s nerve.
The Blues, in putting together a record-equalling 12-game winning streak, appear as well qualified as anyone but there was a hint in Canberra as they faced an opposition in early finals mode that they may not have all the answers, and the hamstring injuries to speedsters Rieko Ioane and Caleb Clarke may suggest other vulnerabilities.
Possible quarter-final schedule for weekend of June 3-5: Blues v Highlanders, Crusaders v Reds, Brumbies v Waratahs, Chiefs v Hurricanes.