Highlanders edge Blues in arm-wrestle
SUPER RUGBY REPORT: The Highlanders continued their resurgence in this year's Super Rugby tournament with a narrow 26-20 win over the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday.
The Highlanders shut out the Blues in a 13-point second half as they overturned a 13-20 half-time deficit.
Code-hopping star Sonny Bill Williams, out of action since an Achilles injury picked up playing sevens at the Rio Olympics eight months ago, and not having played XVs rugby since the 2015 World Cup Final, went from hero to villain as he tried to rescue the Blues.
He came off the bench with 18 minutes to play and twice used his trademark offloads to split the Highlanders defence and put the Blues into a position to regain the lead.
Both times the moves fell down but it put the Blues deep inside the Highlanders' 22 until a Williams pass went along the ground allowing the Highlanders to pounce on the ball.
It started a 90-metre move which ended with the Blues penalised when scrambling to defend on their own line.
Marty Banks, who did not miss a kick, landed the penalty to push the margin out to six points, leaving the Blues spending the final eight minutes trying unsuccessfully for a converted try to save the match.
The Blues, who have not won an away game in New Zealand since they beat the Hurricanes in Wellington in 2013, now slip to the bottom of the New Zealand conference behind the Highlanders.
Captain James Parsons said his side let themselves down by letting the Highlanders score 16 unanswered points after the Blues had led 20-10 late in the first half.
"We probably went away from being as direct as we were in that first half and they got a good roll on. We had enough opportunities to bounce back but just didn't quite get the execution," he said.
Highlanders skipper Luke Whitelock said that despite his side coming out on top they never felt totally in charge, particularly after trailing for most of the first half.
"We had our backs against the wall and it's a credit to the guys fronting up and getting back into the game," he said.
"Look across their whole team, they have some x-factor and you saw glimpses of that, they could break the line or cut us open at any time."
Ben Smith and Malakai Fekitoa scored tries for the Highlanders with Banks landing two conversions and four penalties.
The Blues points came from tries to Charlie Faumuina and Gerard Cowley, both converted by Piers Francis, who also landed two penalties.
Man of the match: Matt Duffie was fantastic with ball in hand at times, while Liam Squire made a huge impact off the bench for the Highlanders. However, the award goes to centre Malakai Fekitoa for giving the Blues' defence all kinds of problems out wide.
Tries: B Smith, Fekitoa
Cons: Banks 2
Pens: Banks 4
Tries: Faumuina, Cowley-Tuioti
Cons: Francis 2
Pens: Francis 2
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith (captain), 14 Tevita Li, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Richard Buckman, 11 Patrick Osborne, 10 Marty Banks, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Elliot Dixon, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Greg Pleasants-Tate, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Liam Squire, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Fletcher Smith, 23 Matt Faddes.
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Melani Nanai, 10 Piers Francis, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Steven Luatua, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Scott Scrafton, 4 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Patrick Tuipulotu, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Sonny Bill Williams.
Referee: Jamie Nutbrown
Assistant referees: Mike Fraser, James Doleman
TMO: Shane McDermott