WELLINGTON, Feb 23 (Reuters) - 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 on Saturday.
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 halftime 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 scrumhalf 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 halfback's kicking had been more accurate - he made five of nine place kicks - the Blues would probably have been in front at halftime 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. (Reporting by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney, editing by Amlan Chakraborty)