It was perhaps appropriate that before this epic Super Rugby Pacific match between the Blues and Crusaders at Eden Park, the Blues’ old boys of 2003 were paraded to the crowd.
That was the last time the Blues won the championship – 20 long years ago – but this match, won by the Crusaders 34-28, was a throwback to those times when this competition really meant something.
This, the Blues' first home game of the season, was ill-tempered, intense and highly relevant to the hopes of both teams.
In an extraordinary twist as the minutes ticked down, Blues’ lock James Tucker and No.8 Hoskins Sotutu were over for tries awarded by referee James Coleman but replays showed both lost the ball in the act of scoring.
The home side kept pushing and may have been slight favourites to make the Crusaders pay for their late ill discipline and set piece sloppiness, but a crucial Sam Whitelock turnover saved the visitors.
In the end the Crusaders got it done in front of a crowd of 23,000, just, but they were creaking and really it could have gone to either team.
The defending champions answered a few questions tonight.
They were without Fletcher Newell, Will Jordan, Jack Goodhue and were ordinary last weekend in Lautoka but occasionally inspired here, with wing Leicester Fainga’anuku in bruising form, scoring a hat-trick of tries as the visitors outscored the Blues five tries to four.
Both sides had issues with their set piece and both had firepower that threatened to break out at any time but the Crusaders were navigated expertly by Richie Mo’unga, who had the edge over his rival Beauden Barrett.
It must be said the Crusaders were helped by the loss of the Blues’ two starting props James Lay and Alex Hodgman within the first quarter due to leg and shoulder injuries respectively.
The home side had able replacements in Jordan Lay and Nepo Laulala but there was little room for error in terms of further injury or worse and that came to pass when Lay was sinbinned when killing the ball on his own line near the end of the first half as the Crusaders poured forward.
With the Blues without a specialist prop (hooker Kurt Eklund replaced Jordan Lay), they were forced to go to “golden oldie” scrums, and, because of that, they had to take another player off – fullback Stephen Perofeta the unlucky one – bringing them down to 13 players.
Why referee James Doleman didn’t signal a penalty try due to the act of foul play stopping a certain try was anyone’s guess but the Crusaders, opting to take a scrum in front of the posts, took advantage of Perofeta’s absence when Fainga’anuku was put away in the left corner for his second try.
The Blues had drawn first blood through Mark Telea, the right wing making the most of a disorganised Crusaders defence after a lineout 10m inside their half to break through and expertly step inside Mo’unga for a converted try.
Once the Crusaders held possession, though, they were threatening. First, fullback Fergus Burke scored on a switch move, his perfectly timed run on the ball leaving the Blues’ defence with no chance, and then Ethan Blackadder was in after a Mitch Drummond half break and offload near the Blues line.
Back came the Blues through Caleb Clarke, the left wing in support for Finlay Christie’s quick penalty tap.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s try soon after his cut back had the Crusaders scrambling put the Blues further ahead but their attempt to force the issue then came unstuck.
Perofeta’s quick lineout throw to Beauden Barrett was stymied when the Crusaders turned the ball over on the Blues’ 22m and a pinpoint Mo’unga pass put Fainga’anuku over for the try which allowed the visitors to re-take the lead.
That man was over again after the break; the Blues were hot on attack but a Crusaders counter ruck near their own line gave them possession and a brilliant Mo’unga cross kick found Fanga’anuku and he outsprinted Tuivasa-Sheck for a remarkable try.
Some Blues fans may question why Codie Taylor wasn’t binned for knocking ball out of Christie’s hands down the stretch but Perofeta’s try put the Blues to within three points before Mo’unga’s penalty extended the Crusaders’ lead.
There was time for more drama: Crusaders prop Kershawl Sykes-Martin was sent to the bin for a professional foul and the match was perfectly poised for a grandstand finish.
They are both 2-2 for the season. What chance they meet in the final again?
Crusaders 34 (Leicester Fainga’anuku 3, Fergus Burke, Ethan Blackadder tries; Richie Mo’unga 3 cons, pen)
Blues 28 (Mark Telea, Caleb Clarke, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Stephen Perofeta tries; Beauden Barrett 4 cons)