AUCKLAND – Attacking brilliance from Beauden Barrett carried the Auckland Blues to a desperate 20-19 semifinal win over the ACT Brumbies on Saturday, setting up an all-New Zealand Super Rugby Pacific decider against the Canterbury Crusaders.
After conceding an early try to the Australian visitors, the Blues dominated the middle stages of the game before barely holding on over the closing minutes to record a 15th successive victory.
The top-qualifying Blues will return to Eden Park next week chasing their first full Super Rugby title since 2003 but they must overcome the competition's most decorated team in the final, after the Crusaders beat the Chiefs 20-7 in Christchurch on Friday.
Blues captain and All Blacks Test playmaker Barrett was comfortably the game's standout performer, defying slippery conditions to unleash his full array of skills, whether it was running, offloading or kicking.
He played a key hand in both his team's tries, to Hoskins Sotutu and Mark Telea, as they turned
a 0-7 deficit into a 20-7 halftime lead. He also pulled off a try-saving tackle on Brumbies fullback Tom Banks and nearly sealed victory near the end when he scythed through the defence and slid across the tryline, only narrowly failing to ground the ball.
It gave a lifeline to the Brumbies, who lifted considerably in the second spell, creating two tries off lineout drives to reserve hooker Lachlan Lonergan.
On both occasions they took advantage of the Blues having been reduced to 14 men through yellow
cardsto Kurt Eklund and Adrian Choat for dangerous tackles.
A late push for victory was foiled when a dropped goal attempt from Noah Lolesio was charge down by Blues prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi with a minute remaining on the clock.
Barrett said Tu'ungafasi's desperation typified the spirit of his team, who have won a number of close encounters this year.
"Huge. It's those sort of moments you've just got to be alive for and live for. We needed the big fella to stand up at that moment.
"You've got to give it to them (Brumbies), we could have easily run away with that one. But we had to fight hard and work hard to close it out," said Barrett, who will go head-to-head against brother and Crusaders captain Scott Barrett next week.
"We're stoked we'll be back here again. We've given ourselves a chance and that's all we can ask for."
The result means Australian teams are still without a Super Rugby playoff win on New Zealand soil, having failed in all 13 attempts.
After a brilliant individual try to Irae Simone in the third minute, the Brumbies were dominated for a long period in the set pieces, and found themselves dominated at numerous breakdown collisions.
Captain Allan Alaalatoa was pleased with the fightback but disappointed his team couldn't become the first Australian outfit to reach the final since the NSW Waratahs won the 2014 crown. "We knew it would take a hell of an effort to come over here and get the job done," he said.
"We showed a lot of heart in the second half. Our maul really brought us back into the game and gave us an opportunity to win but we didn't quite ice it in the end."
The game marked the end of a five-year head coaching tenure for Dan McKellar, who first signed with
the Brumbies in 2014.