'Landers edge Blues in scrappy affair
'Landers edge Blues in scrappy affairSHARE
The Highlanders scored the only try of the match and extended the Blues' run of losses in the competitive New Zealand conference to seven.
After being beaten by the Chiefs and Crusaders at home in the opening two rounds, the Highlanders beefed up their defence and polished their trade mark kick-and-chase game for the trip north.
While the game was no champagned rugby, the improvement in the Highlanders was evident early as the Blues struggled to cope with the high-ball pressure and committed multiple errors which kept them on the defensive for the first 60 minutes.
All Blacks centre George Moala mounted a fightback with a 30-metre solo effort that took the Blues deep into Highlanders territory where they pounded the Highlanders line for most of the final quarter.
But it was the handling problems which ultimately ruined their finishing burst when a forward drive on the stroke of full-time ended with the ball lost on the try line.
As the Highlanders celebrated, captain Elliot Dixon noted the extra effort that that had gone into their preparation.
"It was an awesome effort," he said. "We went to the drawing board and thought we needed to step up our game on defence. It was a good improvement for us, but it was a nail-biter."
The Highlanders shocked the Blues with their pressure start and were up 10-0 with a Malakai Fekitoa try and a conversion and penalty by Lima Sopoaga before the Blues were able to get on the board with two Ihaia West penalties.
The second half was restricted to penalties with the Blues closing to one point at 12-13 before another Highlanders penalty eight minutes from time forced the Aucklanders to go searching for a try.
"We put ourselves in a position to win it," Blues skipper James Parsons said.
"But it starts at the start of the game. We needed to set a platform to get the result and unfortunately we took about 20 minutes to do that and we were chasing the game from there on."
The Highlanders next week head to Wellington to play the Hurricanes in a repeat of the 2015 Final while the Blues play the Crusaders in Christchurch.
Man of the match: There were a few contenders on the Highlanders side. Gareth Evans was a nuisance in the line-outs and did some good dirty work around the park. However, the award goes to Highlanders centre Rob Thompson for his sterling work in the midfield, especially on defence.
Pens: West 3, Francis
Pens: Sopoaga 2, Banks
Yellow card: Gareth Evans (Highlanders, 80 – cynical play, playing the ball on the ground)
Blues: 15 Michael Collins, 14 Matt Duffie, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 George Moala, 11 Rene Ranger, 10 Ihaia West, 9 Augustine Pulu, 8 Murphy Taramai, 7 Blake Gibson, 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Patrick Tuipulotu, 4 Jimmy Tupou, 3 Ofa Tu'ungafasi, 2 James Parsons (captain), 1 Pauliasi Manu.
Replacements: 16 Matt Moulds, 17 Sam Prattley, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Akira Ioane, 21 Billy Guyton, 22 Piers Francis, 23 Melani Nanai.
Highlanders: 15 Richard Buckman, 14 Waisake Naholo, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 12 Rob Thompson, 11 Tevita Li, 10 Lima Sopoaga, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Luke Whitelock, 7 Elliot Dixon (captain), 6 Gareth Evans, 5 Tom Franklin, 4 Alex Ainley, 3 Siosuia Halanukonuka, 2 Liam Coltman, 1 Daniel Lienert-Brown.
Replacements: 16 Sekonia Pole, 17 Aki Seiuli, 18 Siate Tokolahi, 19 Joe Wheeler, 20 Jackson Hemopo, 21 Dillon Hunt, 22 Kayne Hammington, 22 Marty Banks.
Referee: Glen Jackson (New Zealand)
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill (New Zealand), Angus Mabey (New Zealand)
TMO: Shane McDermott (New Zealand)
AFP & @rugby365com