He arrived to rapturous applause but World Cup hero Piri Weepu couldn't nail a last-second dropped goal as the ever-composed Crusaders held on for a tense 19-18 victory in the opening Super Rugby clash at Eden Park tonight.
It was all too familiar suffocation. They didn't adopt the most attractive approach, but missing inspirational captain Richie McCaw and talisman Dan Carter, this a was crucial, high-stakes win that could prove pivotal in the battle for top seedings in the New Zealand conference.
The Blues, without All Blacks Tony Woodcock and Ma'a Nonu, came in as favourites but simply made too many mistakes in the tight moments. They were outplayed upfront yet could have won had they converted their first-half chances.
A bumper crowd of over 30,000 flocked to Eden Park to witness New Zealand's two favoured teams slug it out. This was also their first taste of rugby since World Cup glory was sealed 124 days ago.
Rookie Crusaders five-eighth Tyler Bleyendaal produced an accomplished and assured display. He led the red and blacks around the park competently, nailed 11 first-half points and made a classy incision late in the match. Two 35-metre penalty misses in the second-half were the 21-year-old's only blemishes. On this evidence he will retain the role next week.
This was a match of opposing styles. The Blues were keen on frantic movement, utilising the speed and power of Rene Ranger and Rudi Wulf, while the Crusaders' structured style relied on Kieran Read and company laying the platform upfront.
It was the Blues' approach that cashed in early. Again and again they caught the visitors napping with blistering pace making inroads, scoring two tries in the first 10 minutes.
The absence of Carter's left foot was immediately evident. Israel Dagg's attempted clearance kick was charged by Chris Lowrey. Jerome Kaino botched the grounding, but, luckily, Lowrey was on hand to complete the competition's opening try.
Isaia Toeava and Ranger then linked in a superb break, allowing debut winger David Raikuna to finish a three-man overlap.
Just when you thought the Crusaders were rattled they paused, composed and countered.
As the rain set in, Read's men set about their work with typical patience. With the tight forward gainiing ground around the fringes, Robbie Fruean, who had a powerhouse game, exploited some rare space to stroll through weak tackles from Toeava and Ranger to make it three tries in 20 minutes.
The Blues should have converted more chances. Ably Mathewson dropped the ball over the line in a thumping Read tackle. And a bizarre call with 30 seconds left in the first spell saw them turn down three points, in favour of their shaky lineout, only to be penalised for obstruction. That, ultimately, proved costly.
Michael Hobbs didn't set the world on fire - he missed two of five kicks - in his 55 minute cameo at pivot, but his two succesful penalties gave Pat Lam's side a sniff of victory.
In the final moments, the Blues worked their way down field and set Weepu up for the dropped goal, 10 metres to the left of the posts, but his kick was rushed and limped wide as Read and Dagg pressured.
CRUSADERS 19 (Robert Fruean try Tyler Bleyendaal con 4 pens) bt BLUES 18 (Chris Lowrey, David Raikuna tries Michael Hobbs con 2 pens) at Eden Park. Referee: Chris Pollock.