Highlanders hold off pale Blues
The Highlanders held off a strong second-half charge by the Blues to secure a bonus-point (29-21) win in their Super Rugby encounter.
The Highlanders held off a strong second-half charge by the Blues to secure a bonus-point (29-21) win in their Super Rugby encounter in Dunedin on Saturday.
It was a win based on resolute defence and heart, although the Highlanders were not short of skill either.
Also, a 17-point lead build up in the first quarter by the home team proved too much for the Blues - as they just could not make up the huge gap.
The Highlanders' rushing defence denied the Blues' runners any time and space for most of the game.
And the Blues further contributed to their own downfall by constantly turning the ball over on attack. It didn't help that the Blues' line-out was misfiring or that flyhalf Chris Noakes failed to stamp his authority on the game - some poor options and very ordinary kicking.
The introduction of high-profile Rugby League recruit Benji Marshall in the second half did produce a try, but he also showed why coach John Kirwan opted not to start with him - as his understanding of the game leaves a lot to be desired.
The Highlanders, relying heavily on their big defence and powerful play at the breakdown to secure turnovers, would have been somewhat concerned that their set pieces were not functioning all that well in the first half.
The set piece issues continued after the break, but with the Blues still struggling to find cracks in the Highlander's defensive line until well into the second half, when tiring legs allowed gaps to open.
Not that the Blues made full use of all their opportunities - handling errors and breakdown transgressions that resulted in penalties often ending promising moves.
The Highlanders' 17-point blitzkrieg started in the 10th minute.
From a Blues scrum from inside their own half Piri Weepu lobbed a ball to Chris Noakes, who had his kick charged down by Aaron Smith - the scrumhalf gathering the bouncing ball to sprint over for the opening score.
Three minutes later the Blues, looking to build some phases, failed to control the ball - midfielder Malakai Fekitoa picked it up inside his own half and showed some sublime stepping skills to beat the first line of defence, before he powered past the last two defenders to score a try under the posts.
Lima Sopoaga, who added both conversions, also landed a penalty in the 17th minute as the Highlanders raced well clear.
The Blues saw plenty of possession, but failed to turn any of their half-chances into points.
The Highlanders completed their first-half rout when - from a poor Blues line-out - the Highlanders took the ball through the phases and superb pass from the base of the ruck from Aaron Smith found Ben Smith - who went over for the try.
Sopoaga's conversion made it 24-0 at the break.
The Blues came out after the break determined to get back in the game and within a minute they were on the board - with Francis Saili getting the visitors on the board, after the centre broke the line, puts in a little chip kick, regathered and rolled over the line to score a great individual try. Noakes added the conversion - 7-24.
However, the comeback was all too brief - the Highlanders again broke down the Blues' defence with a slow and steady build-up. It was Shaun Treeby who injected some pace into the attack, with Ben Smith providing the try-scoring pass to put Patrick Osborne away. The conversion was wide, but at 29-7 it looked a bridge too far.
The Blues continued to attack, with a bit more purpose that in the first half, and started to find some gaps - a 14-point blitz bringing them back into the gape.
In the 64th minute Angus Ta'avao barged his way over from close range and then in the 69th minute Patrick Tuipulotu went over after Benji Marshall started a move with a quick tap penalty. Noakes kicked both conversions as the Blues stayed alive (at 21-29) with just over 10 minutes left on the clock.
However, the Highlanders' resolute defence and the Blues' own error- prone game combined to put the 'W' behind the home team's name.
There was a late chance for Noakes to snatch a losing bonus point, but his radar was again off target - leaving the Highlanders to take a full-house five points away.
Man of the match: Charles Piutau and Francis Saili made brave attempts at getting the Blues' backline firing. The Highlanders' two Smiths - Ben and Aaron - showed why they are All Blacks. Co-captain Nasi Manu and lock Jarrad Hoeata were at the forefront of an impressive defensive effort and our award goes to the Highlanders No.8 Nasi Manu for his colossal effort.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: A Smith, Fekitoa, B Smith, Osborne
Cons: Sopoaga 3
For the Blues:
Tries: F Saili, Ta'avao, Tuipulotu
Cons: Noakes 3
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (co-captain), 14 Richard Buckman, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Nasi Manu (co-captain), 7 Shane Christie, 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Jarrad Hoeata, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Chris King, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Kane Hames,
Replacements: 16 Ged Robinson, 17 Matias Diaz, 18 Craig Millar, 19 Josh Bekhuis, 20 TJ Ioane, 21 Fumiaki Tanaka, 22 Hayden Parker, 23 Phil Burleigh.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Jackson Willison, 12 Francis Saili, 11 George Moala, 10 Chris Noakes, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Liaki Moli, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons, 1 Ofa Tu'ungafasi.
Replacements: 16 Tom McCartney, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Angus Ta'avao, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Brendon O'Connor, 21 Bryn Hall, 22 Benji Marshall, 23 Tevita Li.
Referee: Garratt Williamson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Vinny Munro (New Zealand)