The Highlanders banked a 44-7 bonus-point victory over the Blues in Auckland to set up a home play-off. RYAN VREDE reports.
The win, an 11th in 16 matches for the Highlanders, takes them above the Chiefs to fourth on the combined Vodacom Super Rugby log, and all but secures them a home match against the fifth-placed finisher on 20 June. On the evidence of this and other recent performances, they will be a tough team to beat irrespective of who they face.
The Blues were diabolical, as they have been for most of the season. Their expansive ambition was foiled by a combination of cold, wet conditions, the Landers' excellent territory game and consistently good ball retention. The Blues are adept at punishing their opponents from broken field, but in the absence of these types of scoring opportunities they were made to look decidedly ordinary.
John Hardie scored early, but despite the Highlanders dominating the bulk of the first half territorially they took some time to find their groove, fundamental tactical and handling errors preventing them from taking full advantage of that dominance. Their cause seemed to be further undermined when Josh Hohneck was yellow-carded in the 20th minute for a no-arms tackle. However, once the Dunedin-based franchise finally settled the Blues simply had no rebuttal.
They scored after an impressive 15-phase move, Shaun Treeby capping it by powering over from close range. Lima Sopoaga missed his second conversion attempt but banked a penalty shortly thereafter to take his side 13-0 ahead. The scoreline flattered the hosts given their poverty of possession and impotency in the rare occasions they had the ball.
The Highlanders' pressure was unrelenting and when Elliot Dixon touched down after the half-time siren had sounded, there really was no more doubt about which team would be the victor. Sopoaga added the extras for a commanding 20-0 half-time lead.
The visitors shifted gear in the second half, absolutely decimating their opposition through measured buildup play and clinical striking when defensive vulnerabilities were there to be exploited. Patrick Osborne started the try-scoring roll and his effort was matched by Dan Pryor, Joe Latta and Ben Smith, with the Blues only able to muster a score through Matt McGahan.
Blues – Try: Matt McGahan. Conversion: Ihaia West.
Highlanders – Tries: John Hardie, Shaun Treeby, Elliot Dixon, Patrick Osborne, Dan Pryor, Joe Latta, Ben Smith. Conversions: Lima Sopoaga (3). Penalty: Sopoaga.
Blues – 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Ben Lam, 13 Hamish Northcott, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Joe Edwards, 7 Brendon O'Connor, 6 Chris Vui, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Hayden Triggs, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 Keven Mealamu (c), 1 Sam Prattley.
Subs: 16. James Parsons, 17 Nic Mayhew, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Will Lloyd, 20 Jack Ram, 21 Jimmy Cowan, 22 Matt McGahan, 23 Lolagi Visinia.
Highlanders – 5 Ben Smith (c), 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Richard Buckman, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Dan Pryor, 7 John Hardie, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Joe Latta, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Josh Hohneck, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Subs: 16 Ash Dixon, 17 Brendon Edmonds, 18 Ross Geldenhuys, 19 Jackson Hemopo, 20 Gareth Evans, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Marty Banks, 23 Kurt Baker.
Photo: Phil Walters/Getty Images