The Highlanders beat the Blues 30-24 in Dunedin on Saturday having led 24-0 at the break. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
Going into this game, Blues coach John Kirwan said his side still had a mathematical chance of reaching the play-offs. We can now safely say that is not going to happen, and that it's the Highlanders who look set to finish among the top six for a second consecutive season.
But Kirwan will be proud of the way his team fought back in the second half to score four tries. Had the Blues been able to score a try during a dominant 12-minute first-half period, and Dan Bowden not missed three kicks at goal, they may have caused an upset.
In the end, the Blues did get within six points of the Highlanders, thanks to Keven Mealamu's second try with three minutes to go, but conceded a penalty after the hooter much to the crowd's relief.
The hosts had looked set to record a big win when they scored two tries to lead 17-0. The Blues had been unable to control the ball from a contestable kick inside their half and the Highlanders sent it wide to Waisake Naholo, who beat two defenders before putting Malakai Fekitoa away. Naholo then scored a try himself, swinging around in the tackle to dot down in the right-hand corner.
The Blues slowly worked their way back into the game, and came close to scoring when a good lineout driving maul was stopped just short. The ball then came back to Bowden, whose cross-kick bounced away from three of his men inside the left-hand touchline.
The visitors continued to attack without reward. Charles Piutau was tackled inches before the line, a long pass failed to find its man when a try was on out wide, and then a forward pass ended a promising assault from the forwards.
The Highlanders struck again just before the break, when Aaron Smith took a quick tap from a free kick and the ball went wide to Fekitoa, who crossed the line for his second try. Sopoaga once again slotted the conversion to make it 24-0.
The Blues finally got themselves on the board when George Moala went over for a try early in the second half. Sopoaga kicked his second penalty, before the visitors struck again, with Patrick Tuipulotu showing great strength to get over from 15m out. Bowden again missed the conversion to leave the score at 27-10.
The Highlanders were then reduced to 14 men when Joe Wheeler was yellow-carded for a dangerous tackle and no sooner had he left the field than Mealamu scored.
Sopoaga kicked his third penalty and while the visitors were unable to make their numerical advantage count again, they did cross the line against 15 men when Mealamu got his second.
That set up a thrilling finish, with the Highlanders ultimately able to hang on for the win.
Highlanders – Tries: Malakai Fekitoa (2), Waisake Naholo. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3). Penalties: Sopoaga (3).
Blues – Tries: George Moala, Patrick Tuipulotu, Keven Mealamu (2). Conversions: Dan Bowden. Ihaia West.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Jason Emery, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (c), 7 James Lentjes, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Wheeler, 4 Mark Reddish, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Pingi Tala'apitaga, 19 Tom Franklin, 20 Dan Pryor, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Richard Buckman.
Blues – 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Pita Ahki, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Dan Bowden, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Jerome Kaino (c), 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Josh Bekhuis, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Subs: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Tony Woodcock, 18 Charlie Faumuina, 19 Hayden Triggs, 20 Blake Gibson, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Ihaia West, 23 Francis Saili.
Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images