The Highlanders fought back from a 10-point deficit to beat the Blues 26-20 in Dunedin on Saturday. SIMON BORCHARDT reports.
Both teams came into this match with a 3-3 record, and had to win to stay in touch with the top three sides in the ultra-competitive New Zealand conference.
The Blues were the better team for most of the first half, but the Highlanders dominated the second to come away with a vital victory.
This was another highly competitive, absorbing New Zealand derby.
Highlanders flyhalf Marty Banks has not missed a kick this season, and his 14th successful strike opened the scoring.
It was the Blues, though, who scored the first try. The ball went wide to Matt Duffie, who cut back inside and found Augustine Pulu. He passed to Michael Collins, with the fullback being brought down 6m out, before quick recycling at the breakdown saw Charlie Faumuina go over. Piers Francis kicked the conversion and then added two penalties to make it 13-3 after 23 minutes.
The Blues continued to look threatening with ball in hand, but a handling error on the Highlanders' 10m line would allow the hosts to get back into the game. They counter-attacked well, and five phases later, Ben Smith dotted down behind the posts.
The visitors regained their 10-point lead four minutes before the break, when Gerard Cowley-Tuioti crashed over from close range. But Banks kept his side within striking distance with a penalty after the half-time hooter that made it 20-13.
The hosts came out firing after the interval, with an 18-phase attack resulting in a 5m scrum, from which Malakai Fekitoa came close to scoring. The Highlanders scrummed again, and this time Fekitoa did get over, thanks to a good step off his left foot. Banks' conversion levelled matters and he then kicked a penalty to put his side back in front.
That signalled Sonny Bill Williams' long-awaited return from injury, and the All Black was booed as he came off the Blues bench. Twelve minutes later, he broke away past three defenders, with his trademark one-handed offload helping to set up a 5m scrum for his side.
However, Williams then undid all that good work with a poor pass that was hacked ahead by Banks. The Highlanders were awarded a penalty soon after, which their flyhalf duly converted.
That meant the Blues needed a converted try to win, and while they launched several attacks in the final minutes, the Highlanders hung on for the win.
Highlanders – Tries: Ben Smith, Malakai Fekitoa. Conversions: Marty Banks (2). Penalties: Banks (4).
Blues – Tries: Charlie Faumuina, Gerard Cowley-Tuioti. Conversions: Piers Francis (2). Penalties: Francis (2).
Highlanders – 15 Ben Smith (c), 14 Tevita Li, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Blues – 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (c), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Subs: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Photo: Dianne Manson/Getty Images