Josh Ioane scored 12 points in a nine-try thriller as the Highlanders beat the Blues 35-29 in Dunedin on Friday.
Gameflow: Blues scrumhalf Jonathan Ruru picked off a flat pass from Aaron Smith to convert a Highlanders defensive lineout into an early lead for the visitors, and they hit the hosts with another flurry at the end of the first half. But the Highlanders recovered well from both sucker-punches, gathering their composure through tries from fullback Josh Ioane and Japanese No 8 Kazuki Himeno to hold a five-point lead at halftime.
With halfbacks Aaron Smith and Mitch Hunt pulling the strings, the Highlanders kept their rivals off the scoreboard in the third quarter, as they sent Jona Nareki in for a try, and then weathered a late, two-try surge from the Blues that fell short.
By the Numbers: The Highlanders outscored the Blues by five tries to four, but the decisive factor in this contest was the visitors’ inability to convert scoring opportunities into points.
The Blues made seven clean breaks and beat almost 30 defenders in 102 carries, but conceded 11 turnovers at crucial moments.
Though the Highlanders’ defence of Forsyth Barr Stadium, dubbed ‘the Zoo’, was far from efficient (they missed 30 of 155 tackle attempts) their sheer determination to scramble was outstanding and ultimately saved the day.
Part of the credit must also go to a plan built on the boot of Aaron Smith and Mitch Hunt – the all-world Highlanders veteran scrumhalf and underrated pivot fronted a kicking game that operated at almost twice the volume of the Blues and this ensured territory was harvested from those turnovers won.
Run of Play: It didn’t begin well for Ioane. Making his first start since being stood down for running a house party that contravened team rules, the Highlanders fullback was charged down in the act of clearing the opening kickoff.
The visitors converted the field position into a try when the Highlanders got a bit fancy with their exit plans and Ruru swooped onto a flat pass from his opposite number to score in the sixth minute (7-0).
The Zoo got louder as the Highlanders reasserted themselves in the contest, thanks in part to a mounting penalty count against the ill-disciplined Blues who were at one point in the first half sanctioned five times in a row.
The hosts struck back when Ioane converted one of those penalties into three points before Smith quick-tapped another and Himeno was in close support to dive over for the try and a 10-7 lead at the end of the first quarter.
Himeno’s opposite number, Hoskins Sotutu was sin-binned for a professional foul and Ioane scythed through the line to score off a centre-scrum (15-7).
The Blues pulled back within one point of the home team when centre Rieko Ioane split the line to score and Otere Black converted.
Two penalties against the Highlanders put out a welcome mat for Black directly in front of the sticks and he added three points to reclaim the lead and give the visitors a 17-15 lead at the break.
Or at least that should have been the score at half-time. Instead, the Blues were caught short at an attacking breakdown, Hunt put it out for a red-zone lineout and Smith and Ngatungane Punivai combined on a clever peel from the ensuing maul to put the winger over in the corner, with Josh Ioane adding the extras to give the hosts a 22-17 advantage after 40.
The scoreboard was unattended in the third quarter as the Blues switched to keep-ball tactics, hogging the pill through multi-phase attacking series that made metres. Unfortunately for the Aucklanders, the tactic reaped turnovers rather than tries as committed scrambling from the likes of the Highlanders halfbacks contained the breakouts and forced errors that relieved the pressure.
The visitors eventually ran out of ammo at the end of the third quarter. Smith caught Sotutu with the ball at the base of Blues scrum in the shadow of their uprights, flanker Billy Harmon latched on to force the turnover and, after five phases, Hunt lofted a long pass to Nareki for the winger to dot down in the corner (27-17).
The Blues drew within six in the final quarter when they responded to a Hunt penalty with a converted try from prop Nepo Laulala. But, even though Sotutu sneaked over at the death, the game was over after a red card to Blues prop Alex Hodgman for a shoulder charge and Hunt sent replacement centre Michael Collins over for the Highlanders’ fifth try.