Super Rugby - Blues give Kirwan winning start, Sharks edge Cheetahs

John Kirwan's reign as Auckland Blues coach got off to a winning start with a deserved 34-20 bonus point victory over the Wellington Hurricanes in their Super Rugby opener in the New Zealand capital.

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John Kirwan

The former All Black great and Italy coach has been charged with reviving the fortunes of the three-time champions and there was much to please him about his team's performance in a tough encounter at Wellington Regional Stadium.

Debutant winger Frank Halai scored two tries and was also involved in a controversial penalty try for the Hurricanes, for whom winger Julian Savea also crossed to help to home side to a 13-11 half-time lead.

The penalty try came in the 55th minute when Halai, chasing Beauden Barrett's through kick and under pressure from Savea, was adjudged to have deliberately knocked the ball dead.

The decision, made by the video referee, put the Hurricanes back in front at 20-16 and earned Halai a yellow card and 10 minutes in the sin bin.

The Blues responded by narrowing the lead through scrum-half Piri Weepu's third penalty and scored 18 unanswered points in the last 25 minutes to claim the victory.

"All we ask is for these guys is to be themselves and that's what's starting to happen, we're working together as a team not as individuals," said Blues skipper Ali Williams. "It's good but it's a start."

In match with plenty of hard running and bruising defence, the Blues always looked as if they had the edge in creativity in the backline with Weepu, playing his 100th Super Rugby match, orchestrating the attack with aplomb.

If the All Blacks half-back's kicking had been more accurate - he made five of nine place kicks - the Blues would probably have been in front at half-time and not needed Charles Piutau's 48th minute try at the end of 17 phases to take the lead.

Halai, who scored the first try of the match after 20 minutes, then spent his 10 minutes off the pitch but the setback seemed to inspire the Blues.

Five minutes after Halai's return, a typically physical charge from Rene Ranger gave them the lead, the big centre dragging a few tacklers with him as he crossed the line.

The Hurricanes pressed for a score of their own but the Blues turned the ball over and swept down the other end where Halai smashed through a tackler to grab his second try and put the result beyond doubt with five minutes remaining.

Cheetahs 22-29 Sharks

The Sharks held off a late fightback from the Cheetahs to record a thrilling 29-22 victory in their Super Rugby encounter at the Free State Stadium.

The visitors appeared to be in control of the game midway through the second half but two tries brought the Cheetahs back into the contest and, although they could not force the win, they did manage a losing bonus point.

The Sharks made the brighter start but it was the Cheetahs who got the first score. After Johan Goosen had missed an early penalty, an excellent rolling maul ended with number eight Philip van der Walt going over in the corner.

From that point on the visitors began to take charge, their loose forwards in particular dominating the breakdown area.

The pressure began to tell and the Sharks were handed a succession of penalties, with Pat Lambie landing three in seven minutes.

The Sharks extended their advantage when Goosen's error in knocking the ball into touch forced a lineout that was won by the Durban-based side and Lwazi Mvovo found a gap to ghost through for a try and give his team a 16-5 lead at halftime.

They extended that advantage with another try soon after the restart. Good ball from the lineout set up a rolling maul from five metres that ended with a try for Marcell Coetzee.

At that stage there looked only one likely winner, but the Cheetahs sparked into life and scored a try to close the gap.

Van der Walt produced a brilliant off-load as the team took the ball wide, with Pieter Labuschagne running in for the score.

Four minutes later the Cheetahs moved to within striking distance. As they moved the ball wide again, Johann Sadie spotted a gap between Tendai Mtawarira and Odwa Ndungane and raced to the line to score.

The Sharks refused to panic and slowed the game down, eventually winning a penalty in front of the posts that Lambie converted.

The Cheetahs were relentless in attack in the closing stages but the Sharks absorbed the pressure for what they will see as an excellent away win.

Southern Kings 22-10 Western Force

South Africa's Southern Kings made a stunning Super Rugby debut with a 22-10 victory over Australia's Western Force at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium.

Winger Sergeal Petersen, still a schoolboy two months ago, scored a brace of tries while the boot of flyhalf Demitri Catrakilis added four penalties.

The Port Elizabeth-based side have replaced the Lions in this year's Super Rugby competition but were expected to struggle with an inexperienced squad under New Zealand-born coach Matt Sexton.

However, what they lacked in star quality they made up for with a high work-rate and structured defence.

"We knew it was our crucial to get a win today to get the public behind us," Kings centre Andries Strauss said. "We must keep our feet on the ground, it is only our first step into this competition.

"There is still big pressure on us but I hope we can take the momentum from this win further into the competition."

Petersen scored his side's first points in the competition when he showed great anticipation to run in a try. Force winger Alfie Mafi dithered over collecting a charged-down grubber and Petersen nipped the ball from his grasp and ran in unopposed.

The score was against the run of play and the Perth-based side began to flex their muscles. They took the ball through the phases from a scrum in the Kings' 22 and Pek Cowan scored with a pick-and-go from the base of the ruck.

Six minutes later, the Australians were in again and once more it came from patient buildup play. Mafi completed the try in the corner as they spread the ball wide.

All three tries went unconverted and the Force led 10-5 at the break.

The home side had suffered a blow in the first half when captain Luke Watson was forced off just past the half-hour mark with a throat injury and did not return.

But, if they were second best in the first half, the Kings put in a gutsy display after halftime to score 14 unanswered points.

"We spoke at halftime about keeping the ball better and putting pressure on the Force and we did that," Strauss said.

Catrakilis added two penalties to give his side the lead, before Hugh McMeniman received a yellow card for a high tackle on Ronnie Cooke.

With the Force a man down, the lead was extended when Petersen scored his second try on the hour mark. Kings scrumhalf Shaun Venter coughed up the ball over the goalline, but the home side won it back following a Force knock-on and spread the ball wide.

Petersen kept Will Tupou at bay with an excellent hand-off before darting in at the corner.

"It is an incredible start to my Super Rugby career. It gives me great passion and heart to know that I am coming from this region. We are such a unit, playing in this team is a dream," Petersen said.

The Force were penalised at the scrum twice in quick succession, with Catrakilis slotting both kicks to take the score to 22-10 and out of sight of their visitors.

Reds 25-17 Waratahs

Ben Tapuai scored two tries to help the Queensland Reds to a 25-17 victory over the New South Wales Waratahs and spoil code-hopper Israel Folau's Super Rugby debut at Brisbane's Lang Park.

Centre Tapuai scored his first with an interception in a two-try 17-point Queensland blitz in the first 15 minutes that stunned the Waratahs, and his second six minutes from time after a rampaging run from outstanding flanker Eddie Quirk.

The Waratahs had fought back in the second half with tries from former rugby league international and Australian Rules player Folau and Ben Volavola but paid the price for too many handling errors, as they so often did last season.

"We're not quite there yet but we'll take the points today," Tapuai said. "The boys stuck at it well."

The Reds, champions in 2011, had lost their opener to the Brumbies last week but got off to a flying start in front of 35,000 partisan fans when winger Dom Shipperley went over in the corner after just seven minutes.

Three minutes later and Tapuai was crossing the line after stepping up to claim a pass aimed at Folau and a Mike Harris penalty after 15 minutes gave the home side a 17-3 lead which they held until the break.

Folau, playing at full-back and looking a bit lost at times in his first competitive match in rugby union, struck seven minutes after half-time, though, sliding over the line after gathering a low pass from his fly-half Bernard Foley.

Some 12 minutes later and the match was all square at 17-17 after the impressive debutant replacement back Volavola burst through a gap in the Reds defence before putting on the burners and racing 40 metres to score.

Harris, though, broke the deadlock 12 minutes later and it only remained for Tapuai to put the gloss on the score with his second try, a reward for backing up Quirk after the blindside had dashed 40 metres.

It was a disappointing start for new Waratahs coach Michael Cheika, who had been brought in to turn around the culture at the Sydney Football Stadium after a Wallabies-packed squad won just four matches last year.

"Too much turnover," said skipper Dave Dennis. "You can't give a team like the Reds that much loose possession, we were chasing our tails from the start."

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