The Blues remain the team to beat after three rounds of New Zealand’s in-house competition.
The men from Auckland held out against a powerful second-half surge from a determined Highlanders team to edge the Eden Park thriller 27-24.
Coming from behind, after the Highlanders had claimed the lead midway through the second half, the Blues outscored the visitors four tries to two.
A quick one-two midway through the first half – tries by Dalton Papali’i (following a failed attempted clearance kick) and Rieko Ioane (showing off the Blues’ real strike power) – gave the home team the daylight on the scoreboard that they required – a 22-10 half-time lead.
However, the Highlanders came out after the break in a determined mood – producing some power plays by their forwards and taking the lead midway through the second half.
In the end, it was the Blues that produced the crucial plays when it mattered most – scoring a match-winning try while being down a man.
Blues captain Patrick Tuipulotu “described it as a “tough battle” and that the Highlanders put some real pressure on the hosts.
Highlanders skipper Ash Dixon bemoaned his team’s inability to take their chances and said they need to be a lot smarter with their exit strategies.
The Blues dominated from the opening exchanges and made their early superiority count when Caleb Clarke burst over in the sixth minute – following a patient build-up in which the strong carrying of Akira Ioane. Otere Black’s conversion made it an early 70 lead.
This sparked the Highlanders into life and following the game’s first penalty, they launched a series of powerful raids on the Blues line – resulting in captain Ash Dixon forcing his way over from close range.
Hunt added the conversion and Black replied almost immediately with a penalty, as the Blues again edged ahead – 10-7 after 15 minutes.
Again the Highlanders came back, piling on the pressure and forcing a scrum five metres from the Blues’ line. Several phases later the visitors earned another penalty and Hunt levelled it at 10-all, after 21 minutes.
The Blues was quick to surge ahead, with Hoskins Sotutu charging down an attempted clearance kick by Scott Gregory and fellow loose forward Dalton Papalii pouncing to get his team’s second try. Black made it 17-10 after 24 minutes.
It was Rieko Ioane who next showed the dangerous strike power the Blues possess when he surged over after some great interplay – Black’s conversion attempt drifting wide of the upright, only his second miss for the season up to that point. However, the Blues had a comfortable 12-point (22-10) lead at the half-hour mark.
The Highlanders made the perfect start to the second half – when some good, strong running by the forwards got them deep into Blues territory, before flyhalf Mitch Hunt sliced through for a crucial try. His conversion narrowed the gap to 17-22.
They continued their early onslaught with some more power plays that resulted in replacement Ngane Punivai flopping over in the right corner. The call then went up to the TMO, who found a knock-on by Hunt.
They came back for an earlier penalty advantage and a yellow card for Rieko Ioane for repeated offences.
The Highlanders opted for a line-out and started taking it through the phases before Shannon Frizell barged over for the third try – while the referee was playing yet another advantage. Hunt added the conversion as the visitors took the lead for the first time – 24-22 after 55 minutes.
That did not last long. A penalty, that became a line-out, saw Dalton Papalii surge over for his second try and the Blues’ fourth. The conversion was wide, as Black suddenly struggled with his aim – but the Blues regained the lead, 27-24 on the hour mark.
With just under 10 minutes to go the Highlanders won a crucial turnover on their line, scrambled the ball back upfield and won a penalty inside the Blues half. From just under 40 metres out Hunt hooked the ball past the left upright.
Another penalty a few minutes later afforded the Highlanders a chance to set up a line-out inside the Blues 22. That became another penalty, as the Blues started to pay the price for their lack of discipline under pressure.
Again the Highlanders set up a line-out, this time just metres from the Blues’ line. This time the Blues held up the maul and won a crucial scrum feed. That became a penalty to the Blues and time started to run out for the visitors – allowing the Blues to hold on for a hard-earned win in a thrilling match.
Man of the match: Josh Dixon won some crucial line-out steals and deserve credit for his hard work in general play. Marino Mikaele Tu’u won some crucial turnovers for the Highlanders. Aaron Smith produced his usual high standards – even winning a penalty with a strong counter-ruck near his own tryline. Mitch Hunt impressed with his calmness under pressure and some crucial scores. Akira Ioane impressed with his powerful surges and powerful play in the tight exchanges – including holding up a crucial maul late in the game. Caleb Clarke made plenty of metres with the ball in hand. Dalton Papalii was also very powerful with the ball in hand and on defence. Beauden Barrett periodically injected himself into the game to great effect. The most influential player was Blues flyhalf Otere Black – the All Black candidate again showing his quality game management skills and pin-point accuracy with his out-of-hand kicking. There was also some sterling work on defence – winning him our award.
For the Blues:
Tries: Clarke, Papalii 2, R Ioane
Cons: Black 2
For the Highlanders:
Tries: Dixon, Hunt, Frizell
Cons: Hunt 3
Yellow card: Rieko Ioane (Blues, 51 – repeated offences, offside)
Blues: 15 Beauden Barrett, 14 Mark Telea, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Thomas Faiane, 11 Caleb Clarke, 10 Otere Black, 9 Sam Nock, 8 Hoskins Sotutu, 7 Dalton Papalii, 6 Akira Ioane, 5 Josh Goodhue, 4 Patrick Tuipulotu (captain), 3 Ofa Tuungafasi, 2 James Parsons, 1 Alex Hodgman.
Replacements: 16 Kurt Eklund, 17 Marcel Renata, 18 Sione Mafileo, 19 Gerard Cowley-Tuioti, 20 Tony Lamborn, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Harry Plummer, 23 Joe Marchant.
Highlanders: 15 Scott Gregory, 14 Sam Gilbert, 13 Rob Thompson, 12 Sio Tomkinson, 11 Jona Nareki, 10 Mitch Hunt, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Marino Mikaele Tu’u, 7 Dillon Hunt, 6 Shannon Frizell, 5 Josh Dickson, 4 Pari Pari Parkinson, 3 Siate Tokolahi, 2 Ash Dixon, 1 Ayden Johnstone.
Replacements: 16 Liam Coltman, 17 Daniel Lienert-Brown, 18 Jeff Thwaites, 19 Manaaki Selby-Rickit, 20 Teariki Ben-Nicholas, 21 Kayne Hammington, 22 Bryn Gatland, 23 Ngane Punivai.
Referee: Paul Williams
Assistant referees: Brendon Pickerill, Ben O’Keeffe
TMO: Mike Fraser