The Blues began their season with a bang when they beat the 2015 champions 33-31 in Auckland on Friday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
Call it what it is: the ultimate upset. Few would have predicted that the worst-placed New Zealand side of 2015 would defeat the overall champions in the 2016 season opener. Even fewer would have predicted such a convincing performance by the Blues at the start of the Tana Umaga era.
But in the end, the Blues were deserved winners. The Highlanders were outclassed in the second half, and a late try by Ben Smith only served to lend some respectability to the scoreline.
The Blues backline was hyped as a threat, and there were moments when it dazzled. Halfbacks Bryn Hall and Ihaia West took excellent options, with the ball and with the boot. Indeed, West created the hosts' first try with a pinpoint cross-kick. Lolagi Visinia handed Melani Nanai the final pass and the winger raced 40m to score.
The real threat, however, was up front. The Blues pack grew stronger as the game progressed. They put the Highlanders forwards under pressure, and limited the options of scrumhalf Aaron Smith.
While the Blues' defence was determined, there were moments when individuals made some costly errors. The Highlanders punished the Blues in the final eight minutes of the first half, scoring two tries through Teihorangi Walden and Waisake Naholo. This allowed the Highlanders to go to the break with a 24-20 lead.
The Blues stuck to their task in the second half. They continued to apply the pressure through their forwards, and did not concede a point in the first 38 minutes of the second stanza.
West converted seven of his eight attempts at goal. The flyhalf nailed some important kicks in the second half to edge his team into the lead.
The Highlanders were already hanging on by their fingernails as the game entered the final quarter. They continued to concede penalties at the breakdown, and in the 70th minute, referee Glen Jackson lost his patience. Winger Patrick Osborne was sent to the sin bin for an infringement at the ruck.
The Blues used their one-man advantage to good effect. After setting the lineout, they launched an attack. Lock Patrick Tuipulotu crashed over from close range, and the ensuing conversion by West took the hosts to a 33-24 lead with only eight minutes remaining.
Smith scored his second try of the game in the 78th minute, and Hayden Parker nailed a conversion from the touchline to set up an exciting finish.
However, the Blues managed to secure possession and spend the final minutes down in Highlanders territory.
The Blues went on to bank a fine win. The Highlanders had to be content with a losing bonus point.
Blues – Tries: Melani Nanai, Blake Gibson, Patrick Tuipulotu. Conversions: Ihaia West (3). Penalties: West (4).
Highlanders – Tries: Ben Smith (2), Teihorangi Walden, Waisake Naholo. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3), Hayden Parker. Penalty: Sopoaga.
Blues – 15 Lolagi Visinia, 14 Melani Nanai, 13 Male Sa’u, 12 George Moala, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Joe Edwards, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu, 3 Sione Mafileo, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Ofa Tu’ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Quentin MacDonald, 17 Namatahi Waa, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Akira Ioane, 20 Kara Pryor, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Rene Ranger.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Liam Squire, 7 Shane Christie (c), 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Tom Franklin, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Alex Ainley, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Matt Faddes.
Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images