Rugby: High-octane Highlanders hold off Blues in season opener
No joy again for the Blues against New Zealand opposition in this high-octane thriller in Dunedin, a nearly perfect opening match for the Highlanders and a newly-shaped Super Rugby competition.
Nine tries were scored â" five to the Highlanders â" but despite the scoreline there was little frivolity at Forsyth Barr Stadium. The tackles were as tough as you will see in any match this season â" another pointer to the New Zealand conference being as hard fought as always.
As it happened: Highlanders overcome Blues
Despite their excellent performance â" or perhaps because of it - the Blues should be upset at this defeat. They needed a good start to this season and they were full of attacking quality in the opening 40 minutes. It was all the Highlanders could do to hang on.Advertisement Advertise with NZME.
Tana Umaga's men were physic al and had all the answers in terms of responding to the Highlanders' strikes in the opening exchanges.
Their scrum was excellent and with a 24-17 halftime lead would have been confident of going all the way against a Kiwi foe and therefore breaking an 11-match losing streak against a conference rival.
Alas for the Blues and their long-suffering supporters, it wasn't to be. But the good news is that on this evidence it appears that the Blues won't struggle to break through opposition defences.
From prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi and his handling skills, hooker James Parsons - an ever-present with the ball up the middle in the first half - to the bulldozing Akira Ioane, razor-sharp Bryn Gatland, Rieko Ioane and Sonny Bill Williams; the Blues had threats all over the park.
And yet, when they needed to remain calm and maintain the pressure on a team with a new coach in Aaron Mauger, they lost their heads â" replacement flanker Antonio Kiri Kir i's high tackle on Lima Sopoaga 10 minutes after the break resulting in a yellow card and a flood of 14 points for the home side which put them in control.
The Blues' scrum had been good until Kiri Kiri's yellow, when, after winning the feed on their own line, they gave the ball right back and the Highlanders took advantage as they generally do.
With Kiri Kiri off and George Moala out of position after joining the side of the scrum, there was little to stop second-five Teihorangi Walden, who ran on to a superb Aaron Smith pass for the first of his two second-half tries.
Another Walden try from a speculative Highlanders kick which went very badly for the visitors put them in the lead and that was effectively that.
In a topsy-turvy first half which would have allowed Umaga and the Blues to dream of a rare recent success in the deep south, Gatland, Matt Duffie and Akira Ioane went over for the Blues, with centre Rob Thompson scoring a doub le, the latter including a neat move and 50m run to the line.
Prop Siate Tokolahi's converted try after the break evened the scores before Akira Ioane's second try which owed a fair bit to fullback Michael Collins' run down the left touchline returned the Blues to their seven-point lead.
It was swallowed up in the second half, but the Blues were in the match at the end and were sniffing a draw. Some quick improvements are necessary before they host the Chiefs at Eden Park next weekend.
Skipper Augustine Pulu said: "We're disappointed at a few things that we worked on.
"We have to win those critical moments. Unfortunately it was the first game and a few penalties didn't go our way."
Highlanders 41 (Rob Thompson 2, Siate Tokolahi, Teihorangi Walden 2 tries; Lima Sopoaga pen, 5 cons, Fletcher Smith pen)
Blues 34 (Bryn Gatland, Matt Duffie, Akira Ioane 2 tries; Gatla nd 2 pens, 3 cons)