(Reuters) – The Wellington Hurricanes will head into the Super Rugby playoffs brimming with confidence after overhauling a 19-point halftime deficit to grind down the Auckland Blues 29-24 on Saturday.
Having already qualified for the postseason, the 2016 champions fielded what was effectively a B-team at Wellington Regional Stadium and it showed in the first half as the home side went to the break 24-5 down.
But after coach John Plumtree activated some experienced substitutions, the Hurricanes roared home with three unanswered tries while keeping the hapless Blues scoreless.
“It was a bit of a tale of two halves, that’s for sure,” said Hurricanes captain and All Blacks hooker Dane Coles, who made his first start since mid-March following a prolonged injury battle.
“Proud of the effort of the lads… We can kick on into the quarter-finals next week.”
The Hurricanes will return to the same venue next week, having booked a home quarter-final as the best-performed team outside the three conference winners.
But they will have to await results of the matches in South Africa later on Saturday to determine their opponents.
Centre Peter Umaga-Jensen grabbed a try in each half, with playmaker Fletcher Smith coming off the bench to spark the hosts with a try five minutes after the interval.
Lock Isaia Walker-Leawere grabbed his first try in Super Rugby six minutes after Smith’s five-pointer, while flyhalf Jackson Garden-Bachop slotted a penalty in the final minutes to give the Hurricanes breathing space.
Plumtree beamed from ear to ear as his second-string team clicked into gear in the second half.
Well might he, with regular flyhalf Beauden Barrett and a raft of first-choice players rested and ready to be recalled fresh for the quarter-final.
For the Leon MacDonald-coached Blues, their 10th defeat was a fitting ending for another season of dashed expectations.
Despite another coaching shakeup in the offseason, the Blues finish bottom of the New Zealand conference with five wins and miss the playoffs for a ninth successive year.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)