Highlanders burst Blues' bubble
Highlanders burst Blues' bubbleSHARE
The Highlanders retained the Gordon Hunter Memorial Trophy with a deserved 38-28 win over the Blues in Dunedin on Saturday.
However, the more significant outcome of this blow-out is that the Blues' play-off hopes suffered a significant knock, as they remain just outside the top six – despite scoring a late four-try bonus point.
The Highlanders are indeed a strange team.
They have many talented players and much was expected of them, but at the start of their match with the Blues they were rooted to the bottom of the table with just one win.
They are still rooted to the bottom of the table but now they have two wins.
Their wins have been over significant teams – the Sharks and now the Blues and they have significant teams to come – the ambitious Crusaders in Dunedin and the out-of-contention Hurricanes in Wellington. The way the Highlanders played against the Blues suggests that they will not end at the bottom of the table.
That should read – the way they played in the first half, for that was when they were at their best and suggested that they would break all manner of records against the Blues, leading 29-0 after 33 minutes, dominating possession and territory by a great margin, playing with intensity and skill, but then they lapsed back to being the Highlanders for most of the rest of the season and allowing the Blues to look less beaten than they really were.
The scarfies at the ground were in fancy dress celebrating Heroes Day at Otago University and on the field in the first half the Highlanders had heroes – players performing magnificently, rescuing the honour of Otago rugby, but those heroes became largely anonymous in the second half – Colin Slade, Ben Smith, John Hardie, Andrew Hore, Tamati Ellison, Brad Thorn and the rest. You wondered where those players had been all season; in the second half you knew where they had been.
That first half was splendid as both sides hit the ground running. But the Highlanders in blue were doing it better than the Blues in white. Slade and Jamie Mackintosh brought them close. Luke Braid of the Blues were penalised and the Highlanders opted for a five-metre scrum but they conceded a free kick. The Blues did not kick out and splendid Ben Smith started a counterattack. Gear carried it on and the Highlanders' went right through phases. Ben Smith was a spearhead but he was tackled. He leapt to his feet, grabbed the ball at the back of the next tackle and zoomed straight over the tackle for the first try on his birthday. 7-0 after 10 minutes.
Steven Luatua broke but Slade felled him, Frank Halai charged on but Ben Smith felled him. Handling was a problem for the Blues and when Francis Saili knocked on Mose Tuiali'i grabbed the ball and ran. Piri Weepu tackled him and then got an accidental knee to the head. Weepu was taken off on a mobile stretcher. The news later was that he had been concussed but had not suffered further damage. There was a break in play while he was attended to.
When play restarted the Highlanders were well on the attack. Fumiaki Tanaka, revelling in his first start at scrumhalf, was close and when Halai dragged him about the Blues were penalised. Again the Highlanders took the scrum and again they attacked the line. When the Blues were penalised again the Highlanders tapped and bashed. When Ali Williams was penalised for being offside, Slade kicked the goal. 10-0 after 17 minutes at which stage the Highlanders enjoyed 76% of possession and 86% of territory.
The Highlander attacked again and Hore was held up over the line, near the posts. From the scrum Tanaka ran right but Tuiali'i picked and passed to Slade on his left. Slade gave to Tamati Ellison who forced his way through Rene Ranger to score. 17-0 after 23 minutes.
There was hardly any kicking in the game up till now but when Charles Piutau kicked Ben Smith countered and the Highlanders' were back bashing at the Blues' line with Thorn closest. They went right and, despite being tackled by Francis Saili, Ben Smith got his second try. 22-0 after 29 minutes.
For the Highlanders it was the realisation of a dream, for the Blues a nightmare.
Still it was not enough. The Highlanders' attacked through advancing phases and the ball went out to Hosea Gear on the left wing. He dummied and cut back, beating four defenders to score the bonus-point try. 29-0 after 33 minutes.
At this stage the Highlanders' had had 16 tackles to make, the Blues 98.
And yet that was the ended of Highlanders' try-scoring. It was as if mission was accomplished – the Blues beaten and a bonus point in the bank..
The siren had signalled half-time when the Blues got a try. Waisake Naholo on the left wing, a long way out, chipped over Ellison. The bounce eluded Jarrad Hoeata and Trent Renata who collided but the bounce was kind to Naholo who beat Ben Smith easily and scored. In the context of the game the try was astonishing. But the half-time score was 29-7 to the Highlanders.
The Highlanders scored no tries in the second half as the Blues emerged more intense. The Highlanders did score three times – all penalties as the search for tries was gone. The Blues on the other hand scored three tries.
First James Parsons was penalised for obstruction and Slade kicked the easy penalty. Baden Kerr failed to kick off 10 metres. Angus Ta'avao was penalised at the subsequent scrum and Slade goaled from the half-way line. 35-7.
The Blues had a line-out on the half-way line. They went left where Luke Braid was lurking in the centres. He burst clean through and just before the Highlanders' 22 he gave to Ranger on his left and the big centre scored. 35-14 after 54 minutes.
The Highlanders were now lacklustre as the Blues went through phases. Francis Saili grubbered. Naholo got the ball and was tackled by Aaron Smith Five metres from the line. The Highlanders threw in to a stumpy line-out five metres from their line. They lost the ball and the Blues attacked again. The Highlanders were penalised, the Blues tapped and Luatua forced his way over in Mackintosh's tackle. 35-21 with 13 minutes to play.
The Highlanders' perked up at this stage and had a five-metre scrum when Elliot Dixon charged down Francis Saili's kick. This gave the Highlanders a five-metre scrum. The scrum fell down, Ta'avao was penalised and Hayden Parker goaled. 38-21 with five minutes to play.
The Highlanders attacked and Ma'a Nonu actually broke the line by beating his man on the outside but the TMO saw Mackintosh elbowing Keven Mealamu. Mackintosh was sent to the sin bin with 30 seconds of the match left.
There was a scrum soon after and time was taken to get Ma'afu Fia back onto the field as the clock slid past 80 minutes,. From inside their half the Blues attacked. Piutau was tackled just five metres from the line. The Highlanders' bashed and the Highlanders were penalised. Jamison Gibson-Park and darted ahead. He was stopped close to the line but Braid was on hand to swirl and score. That made the score 38-28 at the final whistle.
Man of the Match: It is not easy to choose a man of the match when the sides had such distinct periods of achievement. Andrew Hore was powerful and relentless till he was rested with the job done. Luke Braid did not stop tackling and foraging and got a try. But it was the time when the Highlanders were on top that counted at the end and the man who did most to ensure that is our Man of the Match – Ben Smith.
For the Highlanders:
Tries: B Smith 2, Ellison, Gear
Cons: Slade 3
Pens: Slade 3, Parker
For the Blues:
Tries: Naholo, Ranger, Luatua, Braid
Cons: Kerr 4
Yellow card: Jamie Mackintosh (Highlanders, 79 – foul play, punching)
Highlanders: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Trent Renata, 13 Tamati Ellison, 12 Shaun Treeby, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Colin Slade, 9 Fumiaki Tanaka, 8 Mose Tuiali'i, 7 John Hardie, 6 Jarrad Hoeata, 5 Josh Bekhuis, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Ma'afu Fia, 2 Andrew Hore (captain), 1 Jamie Mackintosh.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Bronson Murray, 18 Elliot Dixon, 19 TJ Ioane, 20 Aaron Smith, 21 Hayden Parker, 22 Ma'a Nonu.
Blues: 15 Charles Piutau, 14 Frank Halai, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Francis Saili, 11 Waisake Naholo, 10 Baden Kerr, 9 Piri Weepu, 8 Peter Saili, 7 Luke Braid, 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Ali Williams (captain), 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Angus Ta'avao, 2 James Parsons, 1 Tim Perry.
Replacements: 16 Keven Mealamu, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Culum Retallick, 19 Brendon O'Connor, 20 Jamison Gibson-Park, 21 Marty McKenzie, 22 Jackson Willison.
Referee: Jonathon White (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Richard Kelly (New Zealand), Kane McBride (New Zealand)
TMO: Keith Brown (New Zealand)