Blues' chances of Super Rugby playoffs look gone in draw with Bulls

Poor old Harry Plummer. He started the Super Rugby season with a costly missed shot at goal and may have ended the Blues' faint playoff hopes with another at Eden Park on Friday night.

The 20-year-old rookie, who missed two handy kicks late in the opening-round defeat to the Crusaders on the same ground, stepped up with time up, the scores locked at 22-22, and victory over the visiting Bulls on his right boot.

It was a tricky kick, after a high tackle on loose forward Tom Robinson near the sideline, but he looked confident enough. It was false optimism, as the kick faded right and the Blues ended with their first draw of the season to pretty much scupper their faint hopes of ending their eight-year playoff drought.

With 28 points, courtesy of a 5-1-8 record, Leon MacDonald's men would pretty much need to finish perfectly with visits to the Reds and Hurricanes to come. They look a long way from that sort of surging finish.

The Bulls, on the other hand, remain right in the picture, with the gritty draw improving them to 34 points.

The Blues forwards all put in pretty honest shifts, headed by in-from lock Patrick Tuipulotu and the hard-working Akira Ioane who is operating on fumes. There wasn't too much to write home about among the backs, though TJ Faiane and Melani Nanai battled hard till the end.

The visiting pack were quality, and enjoyed the slog up front, none more than 38-year-old hooker Schalk Brits. Cornal Hendricks showed his class out wide with a quality finish and No 10 Manie Libbok came good when it mattered to cross for the seven-pointer that snaffled the draw.

On an initially wet and decidedly slippery night clear-cut opportunities in the opening half were as sparse as the crowd who hunkered down in the driest spots they could find.

To be fair to both combatants, they did a pretty fair job of grabbing the chances that presented through the first half, with visiting flanker Hanro Liebenberg and home prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi swapping tries through the opening 40 as the Blues took a 10-8 lead into the sheds.

There was nothing flashy about the first-half action, with neither team really mastering the requirements of keeping it tight and simple on a night not made for the wide stuff.

After the respective kickers had exchanged penalties, Liebenberg took the Bulls out to an 8-3 lead just inside the 20-minute mark when the visitors worked 11 phases to punish home halfback Jonathan Ruru for a kicking blunder. Lock RG Snyman had slipped a handy offload to his No 7 as the Bulls forwards showed excellent patience with the line in sight.

The Blues looked to have replied just five minutes later when Ruru appeared to ground on the line after Harry Plummer had been brought down just short. But, in keeping with the abomination that has been the TMO decision-making process this season, Ben Skeen ruled footage "inconclusive" and rubbed out Ruru's act of atonement.

MacDonald didn't have long to fume. The Blues, under advantage, took a scrum option, and then tapped a free-kick that eventually saw Tu'ungfasi rumble over handy to the posts for the two-point advantage that would stay intact the remainder of the half.

The Blues made the first move of the second half when lock Scott Scrafton drove over, for a 15-8 lead, after just a half-dozen minutes following a nice blindside dab off the lineout from hooker James Parsons.

But that was soon erased when the Bulls punished their hosts for sloppiness at the breakdown and found Hendricks out wide with only Tom Robinson in the picture. The wing did the rest with a pinpoint chip and chase to level things up at 15-15.

Nine minutes later the Blues were back in front, 22-15, when No 8 Akira Ioane made mincemeat of visiting halfback Ivan van Zyl off a short scrum that wheeled fortuitously and the grandstand finish was set up when flyhalf Libbok waltzed over for the visitors as they attacked, under advantage, off the lineout drive.