Clarke stars as Blues continue winning run

Caleb Clarke scored a try and set up another as the Blues continued their unbeaten start to Super Rugby Aotearoa with a 27-24 win over the Highlanders on Saturday. DYLAN JACK reports.

The victory at Eden Park was the Blues’ fourth straight win against New Zealand opposition and propelled them to the top of the Aotearoa table – with the Crusaders to face the Chiefs in Christchurch on Sunday.

Unsurprisingly, Clarke had another excellent outing. The 21-year-old wing opened the scoring for the Blues after breaking a couple of tackles to force his way over and later picked up an assist when he broke the line from running back a poor Highlanders kick and offloading to Rieko Ioane.

Clarke made 82 metres from seven carries in the first half and in total beat four defenders, making two linebreaks. His father, Eroni Clarke, was a Vodacom Super Rugby winner when the Blues were at their best in the late 1990s, and it’s looking more and more likely that he could add another title to his family’s collection.

Also at the heart of matters for the Blues was the 10-15 combination of Otere Black and Beauden Barrett. The duo really seem to be finding their feet together and were a threat from the start when putting boot to ball. Both Black and Barrett put the Highlanders back three – particularly fullback Scott Gregory – under plenty of pressure with a combination of left- and right-footed kicks to the corner.

This particularly told when Gregory made a poor error from a Barrett kick which allowed Dalton Papalii to score a gifted try.

It was not all bad for the Highlanders as they stepped it up in the second half and scored a one-two punch to momentarily take back the lead through tries from Mitch Hunt and Shannon Frizell. The visitors could count themselves unlucky not to at least force the game to extra time as Hunt missed both a penalty and a drop goal in the final 15 minutes, either of which would have levelled the scores.

However, the home side once again showed their quality as they landed a match-winning blow when Papali’i scored his second try and then held out with some composed defence to see the match out.

Blues – Tries: Caleb Clarke, Dalton Papali’i (2), Rieko Ioane. Conversions: Otere Black (2). Penalties: Black.
Highlanders – Tries: Ash Dixon, Mitch Hunt, Shannon Frizell. Conversions: Mitch Hunt (3). Penalties: Hunt.

Blues – 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 TJ Faiane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Sam Nock, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (c), 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Subs: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Marcel Renata, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Tony Lamborn, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Joe Marchant.

Highlanders – 15 Scott Gregory, 14 Sam Gilbert, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Pari Pari Parkinson, 4 Josh Dickson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon (c), 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Subs: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Ngane Punivai.

Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images

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Dylan Jack