Referee's role in the spotlight
The Blues got their campaign back on track with a bonus-point, 29-18, win over the hapless Highlanders in Auckland on Friday.
It is a result that gets the Blues back into the play-off race and leaves the Highlanders propping up the table as the only team yet to record a win this season.
It was a game of contrasts and drama - including the referee's role in a number of strange incidents.
The Highlanders literally bullied the Blues in the set pieces - not just making it tough in the line-outs, but marching them back at a great rate of knots in the scrums. They even won a couple of penalties for their efforts.
However, the Highlanders' lack of discipline and a bizarre refereeing decision allowed the Blues to get back into the game after the Highlanders had dominated in the first quarter.
Added to that was a string of unforced errors by the Highlanders, who all too often coughed up the ball on attack.
The Blues deserve plenty of praise for their gargantuan efforts on defence, holding out the Highlanders at a crucial stages in the second half - once when the home team was down a man and the visitors received a number of penalties close to the Blues' line.
Poor goal-kicking by flyhalf Chris Noakes, who kicked just three from six prevented the Blues from putting the game away earlier.
The Highlanders got off to a flying start - a Colin Slade penalty in the second minute, for an early tackle, and then a Ben Smith try, converted by Slade, gave the visitors a 10-0 lead in as many minutes. The try came after Jason Emery found himself in space and made good ground, before Smith followed up well to get over for the five-pointer.
And the visitors still looked in control, till one of the most bizarre calls this season by a referee handed the Blues the momentum at the end of the first quarter.
It all started when veteran All Black Ma'a Nonu shoulder charged fellow All Black Piri Weepu - a blatant act of foul play that deserved strong censure, definitely a yellow card, maybe even red.
However, referee Steve Walsh - the man who was kicked out of the New Zealand refereeing society and now lives and works out of Australia - decided it was worthy only of a penalty and expressed that to both captains and Nonu. However, Blues skipper Ali Williams was having none of it and gave Walsh a piece of his mind. Walsh then, after seeing the incident on the big screen, change his mind and called Nonu back to issue a yellow card.
The Blues wasted no time in making use of their numerical advantage.
Within a couple of minutes the Blues exploited some space out wide, working a move from a line-out and flank Steven Luatua worked his way over the line.
The conversion was wide of the mark, but about five minutes later - the Blues till a man up - the home team's dangerous outside backs worked their magic, with Charles Piutau the main instigator. Although Piutau was brought down inside the Highlanders' 22, the Blues had the momentum and after getting a penalty five metres out, a quick tap-'n-go allowed Angus Ta'avao to barge over for the try. This time Chris Noakes added the extra - 12-10.
Right on the half-time break Slade slotted another penalty to regain the lead for his team.
Just five minutes into the second half the Blues were down to 14 men, after George Moala was yellow carded by the referee, Walsh, for a high tackle on Buxton Popoalii - who required treatment and was removed on a stretcher after being knocked out cold.
The referee remained in the tick of the action - going back to the big fieldside screen when Nonu was again involved in a late tackle. This time Walsh decided it was only worth a penalty.
Then on the hour mark it was Walsh and the TMO again, this time looking at a possible forward pass in the build-up to a Piri Weepu try. The referee sounded surprised and did a second take when the TMO said there was 'nothing' and he may award the try. Noakes this time added the extras - 19-13 going into the final quarter.
The Highlanders' bench then got them back into the contest - Japanese import Fumiaki Tanaka sniping around a ruck and putting Phil Burleigh into space. Despite the attentions of a defender Burleigh dragged himself over the line. Slade couldn't added the extras, leaving the Blues one point ahead (19-18).
The Blues came back strongly from the restart and when the Highlanders went offside inside their 22 Noakes made it a four-point (22-18) game with 15 minutes remaining.
With 10 minutes left on the clock the Blues won a turnover deep inside their 22 and with some sublime handling worked their way upfield for what must be the try of the season - Weepu rounding it off for his second of the night and Baden Kerr added the extras for a 29-18 lead.
The Highlanders now threw everything into attack, hoping for even just a losing bonus point. However, Blues' strong defence again held firm and the Highlanders left Auckland with nothing but heartache.
Man of the match: The Highlanders pack - who were like men against boys in the set pieces - gave their team the platform for a win, while John Hardy was also good value for the Highlanders at the breakdown. Rene Ranger was, as always, strong with ball in hand. Then there was a very interesting battle between scrumhalves Piri Weepu and Aaron Smith. However, the elder statesman, Weepu, showed his class and added two crucial tries to the mix to win our award.
For the Blues:
Tries: Luatua, Ta'avao, Weepu 2
Cons: Noakes 2, Kerr
For the Highlanders:
Tries: B Smith, Burleigh
Pens: Slade 2
Yellow card: Ma'a Nonu (Highlanders, 19 - foul play, shoulder charge), George Moala (Blues, 45 - foul play, high tackle)
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Jackson Willison, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (captain), 4 Culum Retallick, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Anthony Boric, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Baden Kerr, 22 Francis Saili.
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Buxton Popoalii, 13 Jason Emery, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Andrew Hore (captain), 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Ma'afu Fia, 18 TJ Ioane, 19 Elliot Dixon, 20 Fumiaki Tanaka, 21 Lima Sopoaga, 22 Phil Burleigh.
Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia)
Assistant referees: Jonathon White (New Zealand), Sheldon Eden-Whaitiri (New Zealand)
TMO: Ben Skeen (New Zealand)