The Highlanders fired in the second half to claim a hard-earned 41-34 win over the Blues in Dunedin on Friday. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The Blues did enough to come away from this match with a losing bonus point. But for some poor discipline and game management after the 50-minute mark, they may well have won the match and ended their losing streak against New Zealand opposition.
In the end, however, the Highlanders proved more composed and clinical in the second stanza. Their defence did enough to secure the result at the death, and hand the Blues their 12th straight loss to a fellow Kiwi side.
The first 50 minutes of this game were played at breakneck speed. The Highlanders used their lineout maul, kicking and aerial-contesting game to telling effect. The Blues, who showed a marked improvement at the set pieces, put on a show with their outrageous offloading and running in the wider channels.
Blues flyhalf Bryn Gatland slotted a penalty goal right on half-time to give his side a 24-17 lead. All the pressure was then on the home side going into the second stanza.
Aaron Smith took a quick-tap penalty deep in Blues territory. Siate Tokolahi crashed over and Lima Sopoaga converted to level the scores at 24-24.
The Blues responded, however, with Akira Ioane breaking from the back of a powerful scrum and scoring his second try. The visitors had another opportunity to cross the Highlanders’ line in the 50th minute, but lost possession at the crucial moment.
It proved to be a costly mistake. The Highlanders, buoyed by that defensive effort, lifted their game at the set pieces and breakdowns.
Smith started to take command with a pinpoint tactical-kicking performance. The hosts managed to steer play deep into Blues territory.
The Blues battled to live with the Highlanders at the tackle point during this period. Antonio Kiri Kiri was shown a yellow card for an illegal tackle in the 54th minute.
The Highlanders scored two converted tries in the reserve loose forward’s absence. The Blues were outmuscled off their own ball at an ensuing scrum – centre George Moala proved an inadequate set-piece replacement for Kiri Kiri – and conceded a try to Teihorangi Walden.
The Highlanders scrum fired again to set a great platform for the backs. Rob Thompson spotted the space behind the defensive line, and kicked for his teammates to chase. The ball bounced up for Walden, who proceeded to power through the cover defenders and slam the ball down between the uprights.
The Highlanders were tested in the dying moments, though. The ball was kicked ahead for Rieko Ioane to chase in the 73rd minute. Fortunately for the hosts, the All Blacks winger didn’t manage to collect it before it dribbled into touch.
The Blues enjoyed a further opportunity to snatch a draw when they won a penalty after fulltime. The Highlanders defenders did enough, though, to hold up the attacking player, force a turnover, and bring an end to the contest.
Highlanders – Tries: Rob Thompson (2), Siate Tokolahi, Teihorangi Walden (2). Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (5). Penalties: Sopaga, Fletcher Smith.
Blues – Tries: Bryn Gatland, Matt Duffie, Akira Ioane (2). Conversions: Gatland (4). Penalty: Gatland.
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Teihorangi Walden, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Dan Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman,17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Tyrel Lomax, 19 Dan Pryor, 20 Elliot Dixon, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 George Moala, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Bryn Gatland, 9 Augustine Pulu (c), 8 Akira Ioane, 7 Murphy Taramai, 6 Glenn Preston, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Leni Apisai, 17 Pauliasi Manu, 18 Michael Tamoaieta, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Antonio Kiri Kiri, 21 Jonathan Ruru, 22 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 23 Melani Nanai.
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images